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Oct. 24 2014 5:52 PM

Does ISIS Have a Cash Flow Problem?

David Cohen, the top counterterrorism official at the U.S. Treasury Department, argues that the U.S. military campaign against ISIS is beginning to cut into the group’s revenues.

Discussions of how the group funds itself necessarily rely on speculation and guesswork, but researchers are starting to get a better idea about the terror group’s finances. Eckart Woertz, a fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, provides a useful summary of what’s known about the Islamic State’s financial lifelines. The groups revenues are likely somewhere between $1 million to $5 million per day. A U.S. intelligence official told the Guardian earlier this year that the groups assets swelled from around $875 million to over $2 billion after the fall of Mosul.


The biggest chunk of that comes from oil. ISIS is believed to control roughly six out of Syria’s 10 oil fields as well as several in Iraq. The group relies on smuggling networks, some of which date back to the days of the U.N. embargo against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, to get the oil out of the country. A recent Financial Times article suggested that the black market oil is often refined at plants in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning that ISIS is shipping its oil out through enemy territory.

Another chunk comes from looting and pillaging newly conquered areas—though the extent of this has sometimes been exaggerated—and from extracting funds from people in the territories ISIS controls in the form of taxes, extortion, and real estate. (Fleeing refugees leave behind property that can be rented out.) Then, of course, there are ransom payments from the governments willing to pay for the return of their hostages.

ISIS has also received funding from wealthy donors, many in Gulf countries, particularly early in its rise, though according to Woertz this never brought in as money as was commonly believed.

Some of these revenue streams may not be sustainable. ISIS continues to make territorial gains, but more slowly and at a much higher cost than it did a few months ago when it swept nearly unopposed across swathes of Iraq. Nowhere is this more evident than in the closely fought and bloody battle in Kobane, Syria, whose defenders have taken to referring to it as “Stalingrad.”

ISIS can still exploit those living in areas under its control, but are likely wary of the lessons of their predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, which faced a popular uprising in the middle of the last decade when locals grew fed up with its rule.

ISIS still holds thousands of hostages, but the grisly fate of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Alan Henning may result in fewer citizens of Western countries—whose governments will pay higher ransoms—heading to the region.

There’s also evidence that some of ISIS’s former backers in the Gulf are starting to reconsider as the group expands.

This makes ISIS’s oil all the more critical. Given that it may be up to a year before the Iraqi military is ready to launch a major counterattack against ISIS and the lack of coordination between Syria’s “moderate” rebels and their international backers, disrupting ISIS’s oil money may be the most productive thing the U.S. and its allies can do to halt the group.

Airstrikes, targeted sanctions, and crackdowns on smuggling routes are part of this effort. It’s also helpful that Washington’s Saudi allies seem willing to tolerate low oil prices. All of this could change if ISIS is able to capture more oil fields in Iraq, but many of these are in Kurdish territories in the North and Shiite areas in the South—not exactly a cakewalk.

Woertz notes that ISIS’s revenues, even if reduced from their current levels, are “a lot for a terror group, but not for someone who intends to run a state and rule over an extended territory.” As Hayes Brown points out, if you classify ISIS as the “state” it claims to be, its estimated $875 million in assets put it put it “roughly in the range of the budgets of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan, two countries not known for their massive expenditures.”

In other words, if ISIS plans to keep acting like a state, it may develop a pretty serious cash flow problem in the near future. If it switches tactics and acts more like a traditional terrorist network, more concerned with inflicting damage on enemies than building local institutions, it may be able to live off its nest egg for a while.

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Oct. 23 2014 1:51 PM

Is This the ISIS Backlash We've Been Waiting For?

We’re quickly learning more about Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the suspected killer of a soldier in Ottawa on Wednesday, who was himself shot dead after a rampage through the Canadian National War Memorial and Parliament.

Zehaf-Bibeau is described by the Globe and Mail as a “laborer and small-time criminal—a man who had had a religious awakening and seemed to have become mentally unstable.” His father, a “Quebec businessman … appears to have fought in 2011 in Libya.”


Zehaf-Bibeau’s passport had reportedly been confiscated by authorities when they learned he had planned to travel somewhere overseas to fight. He told friends that he just wanted to go to Libya, where he had lived several years earlier, to study Islam and Arabic. He also, apparently, “knew Hasibullah Yusufzai, a Vancouver-area resident who was charged in July by the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] with travelling to Syria with the intent of joining a deadly terrorist group.”

The attack came just two days after Martin Couture-Rouleau drove his car into two Canadian soldiers in a Quebec parking lot, killing one. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Rouleau was a recent convert to Islam and ISIS sympathizer who had his passport revoked for similar reasons.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has described the Ottawa shooting as an act of terrorism and called the Quebec incident “ISIL-inspired,” using an alternate acronym for ISIS. It’s not clear whether there was any direct connection between the Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau incidents.

The Canadian parliament voted earlier this month to join in the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. ISIS has directly called for attacks on Canadian citizens, along with those of other countries participating in the coalition.

Even if the attacks were ISIS-inspired, that probably doesn’t mean ISIS commanders in Syria or Iraq actually ordered them. ISIS has specifically called for “lone-wolf” attacks against Western countries, and it seems entirely possible that Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau , both reportedly active in jihadist web forums, could have hatched these not-particularly-sophisticated plots on their own.

This certainly isn’t cause for comfort, though. Self-starting terrorists are a lot more difficult to track than those with direct ties to international networks. The incidents will also raise questions about the seriousness of Canada’s radicalization problem.

A recent report from the the Canadian Security Intelligence Services, as described by CBC News, found “130 Canadians who had travelled abroad to join in alleged terrorist activities and 80 individuals ‘who have returned to Canada after travel abroad for a variety of suspected terrorism-related purposes.’” The Canadian government estimates that about 30 of the country’s citizens are believed to be fighting with extremist groups in Syria, including ISIS. According to the RCMP, Rouleau was one of 90 individuals with suspected radical ties under government monitoring. Again, we don’t yet know for sure whether Zehaf-Bibeau had any links to Syria or ISIS.

A Politico Magazine article written last week, before either of these incidents, noted that U.S. politicians have been raising the alarm about terrorists entering the U.S. from Mexico despite little to no evidence of recent jihadist activity in that country. Meanwhile, politicians say little if anything about Canada, which does have such activity and has actually been the origin of attempted attacks on U.S. soil. Counterterrorism officials, though, do seem to pay attention to our northern neighbor: Canadian officials have complained for years about the “thickening” of the U.S.-Canadian border due to security concerns and I’d imagine it’s only going to get thicker now.

While preventing attacks in Western countries was part of the justification for the international campaign against ISIS, it’s long been clear that the airstrikes would make such an attack more likely. Before the U.S., Canada, and their allies got involved, ISIS was mainly concerned with expanding its territory in Iraq and the Levant. Now, it’s behaving more like it’s erstwhile ally, al-Qaida.

So far, ISIS-related violence outside the Middle East has been rare. Australia has seen two incidents. In September, an Afghan-Australian ISIS lieutenant in Syria called a friend in Sydney asking him to carry out a beheading on camera—the call was intercepted and the Australian friend arrested. Two days later, a “known terror suspect” who had been seen carrying an ISIS flag in public stabbed two counterterrorism officers in Melbourne before he was shot and killed. There was also Mehdi Nemmouche, the Frenchman who had spent time fighting with ISIS in Syria, who shot three people dead at the Jewish Museum in Brussels back in May, well before the airstrikes against the Islamic State began.

Without minimizing the seriousness of these incidents or downplaying the tragedy of the lives lost, it’s fair to say that homegrown terrorists haven’t yet been able to mount the kind of catastrophic attacks we’ve feared. It remains to be seen whether this is all they are capable of, whether something much worse is in store.

Oct. 22 2014 6:30 PM

The Tragedies That Have Shaped Canada's Gun Politics

As noted in much of the coverage of today’s shooting at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, which left one military officer dead, such incidents are relatively rare in Canada compared to the United States. But “active shooter” events aren’t entirely unheard of there, and often provoke similar contentious political debates to those here in the U.S.

The worst such incident in the country’s history was the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre, in which a 25-year-old man who had expressed a hatred of feminists and women working in non-traditional jobs entered an engineering school in Montreal with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle and killed 14 women. Ten women and four men were also injured. The anniversary of the event, Dec. 6, is today commemorated as Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.


The event also prompted the crafting of tighter gun laws, including a national registry for long guns that was established in 1995. Perennially unpopular with hunters and gun rights activists, the registry was scrapped by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2012.

Canada’s gun laws are still strict compared with America’s—gun owners must get a license from the federal government which requires a gun safety course, and there are more stringent restrictions for more powerful weapons—but by international standards the country is relatively gun-friendly.

Canada has the 13th-largest civilian firearms arsenal in the world according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, with 30.8 firearms per 100 people. (The U.S. is first with 88.8 per 100.) It suffers about 0.51 firearm homicides per 100,000 people compared to 2.97 in the United States. While safe by the standards of the U.S. or Latin America, Canada does have significantly more gun violence than countries like Germany, France, and Australia.

As in the United States, large headline-grabbing incidents tend to galvanize public interest in gun politics. A 2006 shooting at a junior college in Montreal prompted an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to get Harper to keep the gun registry. A mass shooting at a Toronto barbecue in 2012 that killed two people and injured 23 others led Harper to call for tougher sentences for gun crimes, as well as some characteristically incoherent calls for new laws from Mayor Rob Ford.

Canada’s most recent major gun tragedy occurred in June when 24-year-old Justin Bourque, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, shotgun, and crossbow, shot five Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, killing three. The RCMP said that Bourque was better armed than many of the Mounties called to the scene, though Canada’s National Firearms Association said the incident was proof that Canada’s gun rules aren’t effective at stopping homicides and should be scrapped.

Today’s incident, involving a shooter armed with a double-barreled shotgun, may prompt another round of soul searching. Ironically, what the Conservative government calls a “common sense” package of gun control reforms that would “ease restrictions on transporting firearms, make firearms-safety courses mandatory for first-time gun owners and prevent people convicted of spousal assault from legally owning guns,” was on the docket to be debated in the House of Commons today, before the shooting started.

Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM

Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?

There are many misperceptions about the Ebola virus, but the one thing everyone typically agrees on is that its mortality rate is extremely high—between 50 to 90 percent. If you get Ebola, there’s a very good chance you will die.

But in a provocative essay for the London Review of Books, renowned anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, who has recently returned from Liberia, argues that this is not—or rather, shouldn’t necessarily be—the case:

An Ebola diagnosis need not be a death sentence. Here’s my assertion as an infectious disease specialist: If patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care—including fluid resuscitation, electrolyte replacement and blood products—the great majority, as many as 90 percent, should survive.

The survival rate for the disease in the U.S. is likely to be close to that. Including Thomas Eric Duncan and the two nurses infected by him, as well as those who were intentionally brought back to the U.S. for treatment, there have been eight Ebola patients in the U.S. so far. Only Duncan has died. With cameraman Ashoka Mukpo now declared Ebola-free, five of them have recovered. Nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson are both reportedly improving. Assuming they do recover, that’s an 87.5 percent survival rate, albeit with an incredibly small sample size.

This doesn’t quite prove Farmer’s point. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, the two missionaries who were the first Americans to recover from the disease, were treated not just with conventional means but with an experimental drug that’s not yet available in West Africa, though the extent to which this aided their recovery more than rehydration isn’t yet clear. (Not everyone treated with ZMapp has lived.) Other patients were treated with a serum made from the blood of recovered patients, which should hopefully be widely available in a few weeks.

Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that experimental drugs don’t account for the difference in mortality between the U.S. and the three countries where the disease is concentrated, where it may soon be as high as 70 percent. It’s a question of resources: “staff, stuff, space and systems,” as Farmer, who is best known for his pioneering public health work in Haiti, puts it. Whether or not Ebola is a death sentence still depends largely on where you’re treated for it. 

Oct. 22 2014 11:57 AM

Why Wasn't the WHO Ready for Ebola?

The World Health Organization’s emergency committee is now meeting for the third time to discuss the Ebola crisis amid widespread criticism over what has been seen as a sluggish response to the virus.

Mariano Lugli, a Médecins Sans Frontières deputy director who was on the ground in Guinea setting up clinics during the early days of the outbreak, recently told Reuters that he saw no signs that the U.N. agency was playing a coordinating role as Ebola spread. “In all the meetings I attended, even in [Guinea capital] Conakry, I never saw a representative of the WHO,” he said. “The coordination role that WHO should be playing, we just didn’t see it. I didn’t see it the first three weeks and we didn't see it afterwards.”


The agency’s officials, including its director-general, Margaret Chan, have publicly defended the organization’s response. But an internal WHO review, obtained last week by the AP, confirmed what many critics have been arguing: “Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall,” the report said. Via the BBC, those problems included:

A failure of WHO experts in the field to send reports to WHO headquarters in Geneva
Bureaucratic hurdles preventing $500,000 reaching the response effort in Guinea
Doctors unable to gain access because visas had not been obtained

In April, Ebola was already present in three countries and was spreading in major cities, not just in isolated rural areas where previous outbreaks had struck. The MSF and other groups were also warning that the disease was starting to spin out of control. The WHO, meanwhile, downplayed these concerns, calling the outbreak “relatively small still.”

What was it that left the world’s leading public health body so unprepared for the most serious public health crisis in a generation? According to Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for public health at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Coming Plague, the economic and political factors that led to the botched response have been building for years.

The WHO is governed by the 194-nation World Health Assembly, in which, as Garrett put it, “Vanuatu and China” have equal voting power. Throughout the early 2000s, the member states consistently failed to vote to raise their own membership dues, “so in 2013 they were paying the same dues based on per capita GDP that they were in the 1980s. The core budget, adjusted for inflation, was going steadily downhill.”

This meant that donations from rich countries and private entities like the Gates Foundation had to fill the gap. But these donors can earmark their donations for specific issues—say, HIV/AIDS or smoking prevention. As former WHO assistant director-general Jack Chow put it in 2010, this means the budget is “increasingly divvied up before it ever reaches the WHO.” Margaret Chan herself acknowledged this problem in a recent interview, saying, “My budget [is] highly earmarked, so it is driven by what I call donor interests. When there’s an event, we have money. Then after that, the money stops coming in, then all the staff you recruited to do the response, you have to terminate their contracts.”

This cash flow problem was compounded by the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Eurozone crisis, which saw European nations redirecting their foreign aid priorities toward bailing out struggling European Union member countries like Greece and Portugal. In 2011, the WHO cut its budget by nearly $1 billion and laid off 300 staff at its Geneva headquarters. Today, its $2 billion annual spending is less than that of many U.S. hospitals.

In addition to those stark numbers, recent years have also seen a shift in public health priorities among member nations. In short, diseases of the poor like Ebola were no longer on the agenda, even among developing nations.

“There was more and more of a sense that if you’re part of the developing world, if you’ve left the ranks of the impoverished world, you no longer think that infectious diseases are part of your agenda,” says Garrett. “You become part of the rich club when you start worrying about cancer and heart disease. So there was a lot of pressure to shift the priorities of the organization away from disease identification and rapid response and toward normalizing programs for treatment and prevention of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, etc.”

This makes some sense. Non-communicable disease is an increasing and underappreciated problem, with more than 80 percent of the deaths from these conditions now occurring in the developing world. But the current Ebola outbreak starkly demonstrates the dangers of neglecting deadly viruses. For instance, the member states voted down a 2011 proposal to establish a $100 million epidemic task force.

The timing was also not favorable for a rapid response to this crisis. Garrett, who covered the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire as a journalist, noted that last spring, when the extent of the emergency was becoming clear, attention was focused on the spread of the MERS virus in Saudi Arabia. “What exists of the WHO’s very small rapid disease response capacity was almost completely directed to the Saudi situation,” she said.

As many have tritely put it, the Ebola crisis has been a wakeup call which will prompt calls for reform. Governments and foundations may have picked up some of the funding slack, but only a multilateral body like the WHO can provide the coordination necessary for a global disease outbreak. There will hopefully be some soul-searching and concrete measures taken before the next crisis, though we still have a long way to go until we’re out of this one.

Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM

Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring

Syria, which tortures children, is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Uzbekistan, which has reportedly boiled prisoners alive, is a party to the Convention Against Torture. Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving, has signed on to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

These cases cast doubt on the effectiveness of these treaties. They also raise the question of why countries bother signing such deals at all. Why bother making international commitments you have no intention of meeting?


A recent paper by Richard Nielsen of MIT and Beth Simmons of Harvard and published in International Studies Quarterly takes a look at this question. According to the authors, the conventional wisdom has been “that governments ratify human rights agreements because they expect some kind of material rewards, whether official aid, liberalized trade, or private investment.” There may also be a less tangible desire to be a “member in good standing” in the international community of “modern” nations.

But it turns out to be very hard to demonstrate this empirically. Looking at signatories and non-signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Convention Against Torture, the authors found “practically no support” for the notion that signing on carries material benefits for countries in the form of trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties, or increases in foreign aid.

For non-tangible benefits, the authors used statements by the EU, the U.S. government, and Amnesty International as a proxy for Western opinion. Aside from some perfunctory EU statements praising countries for acceding to treaties—the U.S. usually ignores these entirely—there was no measurable difference in the positive or negative tone of statements about these countries.

So why do they do it? It may have less to do with international validation than domestic politics. The authors say it’s possible “that governments sometimes see ratification as a small concession to their domestic political opponents” or, in a darker scenario, that “treaty ratification is a signal to domestic opponents that officials are willing to torture, despite such commitments.”

It also seems possible that even if the benefits are negligible, there’s little cost to countries for signing on. Why not take a public stand against torture if, in practice, doing so doesn’t preclude you from torturing?

After all, countries rarely try to withdraw from these agreements once they’ve signed, even if they’re subsequently in violation of them. One exception is North Korea, which tried to withdraw from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1997 but was denied permission by the U.N. secretary general because no mechanism for withdrawal existed.

The finding is also interesting when considering America’s attitude toward these treaties. If domestic considerations lead autocratic countries to sign on to treaties they have no intention of honoring, American domestic politics keep us from ratifying treaties we are functionally in compliance with. One big reason why the U.S. Congress hasn’t signed on to the rights of the child or disability treaties, for instance, is the vocal opposition of the U.S. homeschooling movement. For U.S. senators, the downside of offending this constituency outweighs whatever marginal benefits the country would receive for approving a treaty that guarantees conditions that largely already exist.

Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM

The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 

The latest report from the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, gets right to the depressing point: “After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion in counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation levels are at an all-time high.” To get specific, that outlay is actually about $7.6 billion from a number of departments including State, Defense, the DEA, and USAID.

Ironically, the rise in poppy cultivation, and presumably opium production, is due in large part to some promising development trends. The report notes that “affordable deep-well technology” has turned about 200,000 hectares (almost 500,000 acres) of Afghan desert into arable farmland. With opium prices high and labor costs low, much of that land is now devoted to poppy farming.


According to SIGAR’s report, “The UNODC estimates that the value of the opium and its derivative products produced in Afghanistan was nearly $3 billion in 2013, up from $2 billion in 2012. This represents an increase of 50 percent in a single year.”

Poppy cultivation actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since. Around 2009, the U.S. mostly abandoned its previous strategy of poppy eradication, which was felt to be turning farmers against the government, in favor of one that focuses on targeting the links between drug traffickers and the Taliban while giving farmers economic encouragement to grow other crops. That encouragement, evidently, hasn’t worked.

The drop in cultivation prior to 2009 probably had less to do with military efforts than with economic factors. Thanks to drought and a global spike in food prices during that period, the gross income ratio of poppies relative to wheat fell from 10-to-1 in 2007 to 3-to-1 in 2008. Since then, global wheat prices have eased—they’re pretty low at the moment—and the price of poppies has increased, and farmers have gone back to the harder stuff. Eastern Nangahar province, which was declared opium-free and touted as a counternarcotics success story in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in cultivation last year.

Farmers may also be hedging their bets in anticipation of the departure of NATO forces—the majority are pulling out at the end of this year, leaving behind a smaller contingent of U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. The majority of Afghanistan’s poppies are still grown in the Taliban-dominated Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but cultivation has been increasing around government-controlled Kabul as well.

Oct. 20 2014 1:50 PM

Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls

Last Friday, there seemed to be cause for cautious optimism in reports that the Nigerian government was on the verge of a cease-fire with Boko Haram. That deal supposedly would have seen the release of the roughly 200 schoolgirls abducted from the town of Chibok in April, an act that provoked international outrage.

But things appear a bit more uncertain today. Suspected Boko Haram fighters carried out two attacks on villages in northern Nigeria over the weekend, killing several people.


The government says these may not have been actual Boko Haram attacks, just criminal groups exploiting the chaos. But this uncertainty points to one of the reasons for being cautious about news of a deal: It’s getting harder to figure out who, exactly, Boko Haram is.

As one government official involved in the negotiation puts it, “Boko Haram has grown into such an amorphous entity that any splinter group could come up disowning the deal. [But] we believe we are talking to the right people.”

One reason to be suspicious: The talks are being held with a previously unknown militant who describes himself as the group’s “secretary general.” Boko Haram’s known leader, Abubakar Shekau, has not yet commented. The Nigerian military recently claimed that it killed Shekau, or at least a man who was posing as Shekau in a series of videos. Shekau himself has been rumored to be dead a number of times, though earlier this month someone claiming to be the Boko Haram leader appeared on video saying, “Here I am, alive.” So, who knows—at this point, Shekau is essentially Schrödinger’s terrorist.

Given the criticism Goodluck Jonathan’s government has already faced over the abduction, it seems like it would be in Boko Haram’s interests to once again embarrass the government. This wouldn’t be the first time that a cease-fire had been declared only for Boko Haram to deny it later. After a deal was reached with the group’s “deputy leader” in July 2013, Shekau quickly released a video message saying, “Let me assure you that we will not enter into any truce with these infidels.” 

We should probably know more by Tuesday, when Nigerian government sources say they aim to have the deal finalized. No matter the outcome, this weekend’s attacks are an indication that it probably won’t mean an end to northern Nigeria’s violence. For one thing, Boko Haram isn’t the only game in town. And there are bound to be questions about what exactly the government gave up to get the schoolgirls back. But at least there’s a little bit more hope that the ordeal for the girls of Chibok will soon be coming to an end. 

Oct. 20 2014 1:13 PM

Obama’s Post-Congressional Foreign Policy

An international deal with Iran over its nuclear program still doesn’t look like a slam dunk at this point. Nevertheless, in a New York Times article today, the Obama administration makes clear that if an agreement is eventually reached, they have no plans to involve Congress:

Even while negotiators argue over the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to spin and where inspectors could roam, the Iranians have signaled that they would accept, at least temporarily, a “suspension” of the stringent sanctions that have drastically cut their oil revenues and terminated their banking relationships with the West, according to American and Iranian officials. The Treasury Department, in a detailed study it declined to make public, has concluded Mr. Obama has the authority to suspend the vast majority of those sanctions without seeking a vote by Congress, officials say.

Only Congress can permanently lift the sanctions--which it’s unlikely to do even if Democrats hold on to the Senate—but the deal could be structured in such a way that this wouldn’t happen until Iran meets certain internationally verified benchmarks. In other words, it could be years.

It’s not unusual for presidents to look abroad in search of monsters to destroy late in their terms, as they have more authority to conduct foreign as opposed to domestic policy independently of Congress. But even by historical standards, the Obama administration seems to be particularly interested in freezing Congress out.

Given that it’s virtually impossible to get any multilateral treaty ratified by the Senate—some obscure fishing regulations are the exception that proves the rule—the administration’s plan for a long-awaited climate change deal will involve “politically binding” commitments rather than legally binding ones, which Congress would have to approve.

In the case of what’s been dubbed “Operation Inherent Resolve,” the campaign of airstrikes to counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the administration never sought congressional approval. The 60-day deadline, after which Congress must authorize military action under the War Powers Resolution, has long passed. (Obama did issue a letter to Congress in September informing them of the operation and noting, somewhat vaguely, “I appreciate the support of the Congress in this action.”)

Yale Law professor and constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman has described the operation against ISIS as “a decisive break in the American constitutional tradition” that outdoes anything attempted by the Bush administration. But interestingly, congressional Republicans who normally jump on any chance to accuse the administration of imperial overreach, have been fairly blasé about these strikes. House Speaker John Boehner says that Congress should debate the use of military force against ISIS but only after the newly elected legislative body convenes in January—a lifetime in terms of a fast-moving military operation like this one.

There are several reasons for this trend toward post-Congressional foreign policy. One, obviously, is the dysfunction and gridlock in Congress, a situation that other governments are well aware of. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has mused that Obama will have a “a harder job” negotiating with Congress than he will with Iran. Chinese officials love to point out that they’re being lectured on their emissions commitments by a country in which a large number of legislators don’t even believe climate change is occurring.

Given the herculean effort it evidently requires to get an ambassador to Palau confirmed in today’s Congress, it’s not a surprise that the administration is looking for workarounds on key issues like climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, and fighting ISIS.

In terms of war powers, President Obama has also gotten an ironic assist from his predecessor. As justification for the current operation, the administration is relying on the 13-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force against terrorism, which the president himself said ought to be reexamined and reined in by Congress in a speech last year. (The administration is also now reportedly considering whether to reaffirm the Bush administration’s reading of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.)

There are also larger global dynamics at work. Today’s American wars are typically open-ended campaigns against non-state actors, not fixed periods of combat between nations like those envisioned in the Constitution or the 1973 War Powers Act. Threats like climate change and nuclear proliferation also require swift global action of a kind that our current system seems ill-equipped to handle.

But that doesn’t mean the president should have unchecked powers to send troops into battle or commit the nation to major international agreements. For that to change, the White House will have to stop pushing to expand its power to act unilaterally at every opportunity, and Congress will have to start taking its oversight role seriously. At the moment, neither seems very likely.

Oct. 17 2014 5:36 PM

America’s Fears of Immigration, Terrorism, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

There’s been a persistent and mostly baseless claim in American politics over the last few years that Islamist terrorist have been actively attempting to enter the country through the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s also a long tradition of suggesting that immigrants crossing the border pose a serious public health risk. Ebola was roped into this months before anyone in the U.S. contracted the disease, but the fear mongering has ramped up dramatically more recently.

So, this being campaign season, it was only a matter of time before fears about immigrants, terrorism, and Ebola were combined into one rhetorical supercluster of anxiety.


When asked in a radio interview this week whether he favored travel restrictions on countries in West Africa, Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator now running for Senate in New Hampshire argued that we have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it” and “it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent, criminal or terrorist.”

To be fair, this is a little ambiguous as to whether the people with terrorist intent are the same ones who have the diseases. More explicit was Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania who suggested that U.S. citizens who travel abroad to join jihadist groups, could intentionally infect themselves with Ebola. “Think about the job they could do, the harm they could inflict on the American people by bring this deadly disease into our cities, into schools, into our towns, and into our homes,” he said.

But it took Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina to really bring things full circle by suggesting that closing the border to keep out Ebola-infected Hamas fighters: “Part of their creed would be to bring persons who have Ebola into our country. It would promote their creed. And all this could be avoided by sealing the border, thoroughly. C’mon, this is the 21st century.”

This would all be quite funny if real people weren’t being unfairly stigmatized.

Ebola, first of all, is not a very potentially effective bioweapon. And even if willing recruits were somehow recruited into the Ebola jihad, there are probably easier ways for them to get into the country than by sneaking across the border.

Something also seems fundamentally absurd about a country where Ebola already is present walling itself off out of fear from a country where it isn’t. There haven’t yet been any confirmed Ebola cases in Mexico or anywhere in Latin America. Meanwhile, a Dallas healthcare worker being monitored for signs of the disease boarded a cruise and nearly disembarked in Mexico and Belize this week.

If Ebola does jump the U.S.-Mexico border at some point, I’m not sure why we’re assuming it’s going to be heading north.