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July 25 2014 4:57 PM

The Senate’s Ambassador Backlog Is Getting Ridiculous

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reports that Sen. Ted Cruz is holding up all State Department appointees “until he has answers about the Federal Aviation Administration’s ban on U.S. carriers flying to Tel Aviv in the midst of the Gaza war, a ban that has since been lifted.”

This includes John Tefft, who was nominated as ambassador to Russia last month.* The U.S. had not had a permanent ambassador to Russia since Michael McFaul stepped down in February, and for obvious reasons, this is a time when there would ideally be an American representative in Moscow.


But even before Cruz’s move, the ambassador backlog was becoming a problem.

More than 40 ambassador nominees are awaiting action by the Senate. These postings also include Qatar, one of the key countries in Middle East peace negotiations. The U.S. has also not had a representative on the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization during the last few brutal days for international air travel.

The slow confirmation process has been an issue for years now, but it’s been more acute since November when Democrats changed senate rules to require a simple majority vote for nominees. The Wall Street Journal explains:

Irate over the change, Republicans have largely stopped allowing the Senate to take procedural shortcuts that had enabled the chamber to breeze through blocs of nominees. Forced to move more slowly, Democrats focused first on the president's judicial nominees, in an effort lighten a burden on the court system.

In the meantime, the ambassadors languished.

John Kerry says the delay means that “we’re going without our strongest voice on the ground every day in more than 25 percent of the world.”

To be fair, the administration’s ability to take the moral high ground on this issue is somewhat undermined by its habit of appointing political backers to these posts, including an ambassador to Norway with seemingly no knowledge of the country’s political system and an ambassador to Hungary best known for producing The Bold and the Beautiful.

I mean no disrespect to Norway, but it’s safe to say that it’s not the end of the world if Ted Cruz holds up the campaign bundler appointed to our man in Oslo in order to make a political point.

Moscow and Doha, on the other hand …

*Correction, July 25, 2014: This post originally misspelled John Tefft’s last name.

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July 25 2014 2:06 PM

West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak Is Spiraling Out of Control

West Africa’s ongoing Ebola outbreak, the first to occur significantly in major cities, has already infected more than 1,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, nearly half the number killed by the disease in the last three decades. And this week has brought more disturbing news.

On Wednesday it was reported that Sierra Leon’s top Ebola doctor was himself infected with the disease. Ebola can have mortality rates of up to 90 percent but it’s closer to 60 for this particular outbreak.


Today, a Liberian man tested positive for the disease after arriving in Lagos, the largest city in Africa. Meanwhile, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the first known resident of the city with the virus is on the run after her family forcibly removed her from a hospital. The country’s overstretched health authorities believe that dozens of people who have tested positive for the disease may now be unaccounted for.

Despite its gruesome symptoms and high death tolls, Ebola shouldn’t be the kind of disease that turns into a pandemic. It’s relatively difficult to transfer from person to person and previous outbreaks—which have typically occurred in remote rural areas—have been contained.

This is a different scenario entirely, with the disease apparently reaching urban areas and many of the people at risk skeptical or suspicious of health workers. Hopefully the Lagos case is an isolated incident, but if steps aren’t taken to contain this quickly, it seems inevitable that more countries will be at risk.

July 25 2014 12:28 PM

Stateless in the Middle East

Deborah Amos of NPR reports on an overlooked aspect of Syria’s refugee crisis. Thousands of the  children born to the roughly 2.5 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries may have no citizenship:

 A recent report by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, suggests that 75 percent of Syrians born in Lebanon since 2011 have not been properly registered. Many families don't have any identification documents, which were destroyed in the fighting or left behind in a panicked escape.


The numbers are even harder to come by in Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are unregistered. They slipped across the border for safety, but their babies born in Turkey have no official status.

There are about 12 million stateless people in the world today, many as the result of the breakup of states in the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, or because of ethnic discrimination. Stateless people often have difficulty in gaining access to legal protection, social services, or education, and have difficulties traveling—one reason why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a “right to a nationality.”

In the case of Syrian refugees, many parents still haven’t formally registered in the countries where they are living, for fear of the information getting back to the Syrian authorities, leaving themselves and their children in legal limbo.

So in addition to the future of the Middle East’s borders being very much in doubt, it seems there’s going to be a sizable future population with no nationality at all.  

July 24 2014 5:56 PM

Why Getting a Gaza Cease-Fire Will Be Much Harder This Time Around

The primary obstacle to reaching a cease-fire in Gaza, of course, is that neither Hamas nor the Israeli government seems particularly interested in one.

The last cease-fire the Israeli government agreed to didn’t stop the rockets, and now public opinion seems dead-set against any cease-fire deal short of complete destruction of Hamas’ tunnels and an end to rocket fire.


Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal—currently in Qatar, far from the carnage—says he won’t agree to any cease-fire without an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, an opening of the Egyptian border, and the release of Hamas prisoners.

Previous outbreaks of war in Gaza—in 2008 and 2012—have ended with both sides being able to find some cause to declare “victory,” even if most underlying issues remained unaddressed. Given the conditions both sides have established for victory this time, that seems like it will be more difficult to achieve.

Plus, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi points out, recent political shifts in the Middle East make things much more difficult this time around.* In 2012 Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was there to mediate. But Egypt’s current leaders, having destroyed the Strip’s smuggling tunnels and kept the border tightly closed throughout this crisis, have little credibility with Hamas. Hamas’ strategy, this time around, may be aimed as much at securing concessions from Egypt as from Israel.

Diplomatically ambitious Qatar, meanwhile, has a lot more credibility with Hamas, as does Turkey, but Israel has made clear it’s only interested in mediation from Egypt.

And thanks to tensions left over from the Arab Spring, Egypt’s government is not on great terms with what Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri called the “Hamas-Qatar-Turkey axis.”

So as John Kerry shuttles around a region where nobody appears particularly interested in talking with him, it’s beginning to seem like getting all these potential mediators on the same page may be necessary before there’s any chance of getting the two sides actually fighting to back off.

A deal acceptable to Hamas would presumably have to include some compromise from Egypt on the border and an aid package from its allies in the region. Whether Israel would agree to such a deal is probably contingent on when Israel feels it can declare its “tunnels project” completed. In any event, there’s a long way to go and despite the grim scenes today, both Israel and Hamas seem content to keep this going for a few more days.

Back in 2012, when a deal was finally reached ending eight days of violence and, in that instance, forestalling an Israeli ground invasion, the New York Times noted that “neither Israel nor Hamas was represented in the final talks or the announcement, leaving it in the hands of a singular partnership between their proxies, the United States and Egypt.”

This time around, when the bloodshed does eventually end, I won’t be surprised if it’s representatives of Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey we see shaking hands, with John Kerry somewhere in the background, and Israel and Hamas nowhere to be seen.

*Correction, July 25, 2014: This post originally misidentified Christian Science Monitor reporter Howard LaFranchi as Christian LaFranchi.

July 24 2014 2:36 PM

Europe’s Refugee Crisis Is a Lot Like America’s, but Much Worse

Reading my colleague Emily Bazelon’s much-needed excoriation of the Democratic governors who have refused to provide help in sheltering the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have recently arrived in the United States, I was struck by some of the parallels between the crisis at America’s southern border and Europe’s Mediterranean migrant crisis. More than 39,000 migrants have already arrived in Italy this year, nearly equal to the total for all of last year.

There, too, governments to the north have been far too reluctant to provide help to the southern states bearing the brunt of the crisis.


In both cases, the recent uptick in arrivals has been driven by political instability—in the U.S., rising crime in Central America; in Europe, political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East.

In both cases, the arrivals have often provoked an ugly xenophobic backlash.

In both cases, migrants are transported by traffickers in dangerous and often deadly conditions.

In both cases, the high-profile refugee crises are distracting from the fact that these wealthy countries are not, in fact, being overrun by foreigners: The EU has seen a significant decline in arrivals from outside Europe in recent years, and overall illegal immigration to the United States is at near-historic lows.

The are, of course, significant differences. The main one may be that as dangerous as the deserts of the American Southwest may be, the Mediterranean is nearly 10 times deadlier.  

While neither place is really being overhwelmed—certainly not on the scale of a place like Jordan—both migrant crises will likely continue to get more acute as long as the violence and instability driving them persist. In both cases, the current strategies don't seem to be working.  

July 24 2014 12:34 PM

Is ISIS Showing Signs of Strain?

Just a few weeks ago,  the Sunni militant group ISIS seemed nearly invincible, sweeping across Iraqi territory and crushing the resistance of a divided and demoralized Iraqi military.

Now, however, some cracks are starting to appear in the façade. The alliance of convenience between ISIS and the Sunni and ex-Baathist groups that have aided its march toward Baghdad is showing some signs of fracturing, and some residents may be getting fed up with life under the group's draconian rule.


NPR reports that “some residents in Mosul now say the brutality of the group is beginning to show. Some Sunni towns have even risen up against the fighters with fatal consequences for the residents.”

Jacob Siegel writes in the Daily Beast, “ISIS really is as brutal as it claims to be, though not yet half as strong. Its fighters had impressive military victories in their first rush of advances, but now, even as they talk about conquering Rome, they’re struggling to take Tikrit.”

ISIS hasn’t made that much progress lately in conquering new territory and seems to be bogged down by fighting with its allies.

This might be the sort of situation that Iraq’s government and its allies could take advantage of. Except Iraqi leaders appear unable to agree on the sort of political reconciliation that would be necessary in order to do so.

Also, ISIS’s control of territory in Syria seems to be extensive and in some areas very well-consolidated. Plus, it has a new source of income from the oil fields it seized on its sweep across Iraq last month.   

ISIS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon—even if pushed out the towns it took over in Iraq, it could regroup across the border in Syria—but it’s not quite the unstoppable force it seemed to be last month. 

July 23 2014 5:29 PM

China’s Bubonic Plague Response Seems a Little Extreme

Chinese authorities have sealed off the 30,000 inhabitants of the northwestern city of Yumen and quarantined 151 people after a man died of bubonic plague. The man was apparently infected after coming into contact with a dead marmot. "The city has enough rice, flour and oil to supply all its residents for up to one month,” reported CCTV, making it sound as if this might not end for a while.

You might take this story as yet another sign of the end times, but the thing is, bubonic plague isn’t that unusual. There are between 1,000 and 2,000 cases per year around the world, including, typically, a handful in the United States, mostly in the Southwest. The plague may have killed tens of millions back in the 14th century, but these days it's usually treatable with antibiotics.


After China was heavily criticized for its handling of SARS and H5N1 outbreaks, it makes sense that authorities might be especially cautious about stopping a potential new disease outbreak. But given that plague spreads through fleas rather than person-to-person contact and the fact that no other infections have been detected, the reaction here seems a bit extreme.

Unless there's something else going on here that we don't know about yet, it seems like it should be possible to contain this situation without turning a large town into a Camus novel.

July 23 2014 4:25 PM

When the Crises in Ukraine and Gaza End, Iraq and Syria Will Still Be There

Events in Gaza and Ukraine have, for the time being, taken global attention away from the Syrian civil war and the ISIS’s advance through Iraq. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg sees this as a sign of an international obsession with Israel. There’s something to that, but I think it likely has more to do with novelty. Syria is a long-running conflict. Americans are reminded of it whenever something dramatically changes: use of chemical weapons raising the possibility of U.S. airstrikes, or the conflict expanding into Iraq.

Nothing has happened recently to quite rival the flare-ups happening elsewhere, but the situation has deteriorated significantly. Last Thursday and Friday were the two bloodiest days yet in Syria’s civil war, with more than 700 people killed in fighting between the government and ISIS, the Sunni militant group that recently rebranded itself as the Islamic State. An ISIS suicide bombing in Baghdad killed 31 people, mainly civilians, in Baghdad yesterday, and the group appears to be consolidating its political control over the areas it has conquered and has acquired a new revenue stream by smuggling oil.


Meanwhile, Iraq’s political leaders have so far been unable to agree on the kind of power-sharing agreement likely necessary to confront the insurgency. Iraqi security forces, meanwhile, have been accused of killing civilians with barrel bombs, the same crude and brutal weapon favored by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.

One big problem with the now prevalent “arc of global instability” narrative is that it lumps together short-lived flare-ups of long-running local conflicts with much larger and more transformative events. Sooner or later, the violence in Gaza will be resolved by a cease-fire, though the question is how many more people will die before it happens. The violence in eastern Ukraine flares up and dies down, but despite the understandable wariness in Eastern Europe, it seems unlikely to spread beyond its immediate region.

The twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria are another story: a long-running and increasingly chaotic situation without an obvious political solution, even a short term one. The violence challenges long-standing borders in the region and could increase the risk of international terrorism, and the refugee crisis it has created will continue to place strain on surrounding countries. Given the Iraq war and the deepening U.S. involvement in Syria, I would also argue that it’s the crisis the U.S. bears the most direct responsibility for.

This week’s most discussed tragedies will eventually come to an end. But the chaos in Iraq and Syria isn’t going anywhere. 

July 23 2014 12:09 PM

Why Does John Kerry Keep Saying That Egypt Is “Transitioning to Democracy”?

In a press conference with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry once again described Egypt as transitioning to democracy:

I want to thank the people of Egypt for their hard work in transitioning to a democracy through their election and in making difficult choices with respect to their economy and the future today. 

Kerry had previously been criticized for referring to the military’s overthrow of elected President Mohamed Morsi as “restoring democracy.” Last month Kerry announced that the U.S. was ready to restore relations with Egypt’s government after having briefly suspended some military aid following a crackdown against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The announcement unfortunately came a day before the sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to lengthy jail terms.

Though you’ll never hear it in public, most U.S. officials probably aren’t that sorry that, considering everything else happening in the Middle East at the moment, Egypt is once again under the heavy-handed control of a secular (and for all intents and purposes pro-Israel) authoritarian government. Not so long ago, the country seemed on the verge of a civil war of its own. 

All the same, earlier this week, I defended Kerry from some of the criticism he’s received over recent events. But there’s something Orwellian about repeatedly referring to a government that overthrew its elected predecessor, jails its political opponents and foreign journalists, and conducted a faux election that fooled no one as transitioning to democracy.

July 22 2014 6:24 PM

Pick Your Analogy

What’s the best historical analogy to understand the turmoil and shifting alliances in the Middle East right now?

Writing in the New Republic, Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans sees “uncomfortable parallels” between Europe before World War I and the Middle East today:    

Currently it is the conflicts in the Middle East we have to worry about, with a vicious civil war in Syria between rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while Nato and the US line up behind the other.
Before 1914 the critical trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist passions were overlaid with religious conflicts between Christian states, such as Greece and Bul­garia, and the Islamic Ottoman empire. The Habsburg monarchy, run by a Roman Cath­olic elite, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. … The Balkan states, much like nations of the Middle East today, to a degree stood proxy for larger powers, notably tsarist Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. 

Keep in mind that amid this year’s centenary and a slew of new World War I histories being published, ominous 1914 parallels have also been observed in Ukraine and the East China Sea.

F. Gregory Gause of the Brookings Institution, meanwhile, sees what’s happening now as a “new cold war”:

The best framework for understanding the regional politics of the Middle East is as a cold war in which Iran and Saudi Arabia play the leading roles. These two main actors are not confronting each other militarily; rather, their contest for influence plays out in the domestic political systems of the region’s weak states. It is a struggle over the direction of the Middle East’s domestic politics more than it is a purely military contest. The military and political strength of the parties to civil conflicts, and the contributions that outsiders can make to that strength, is more important than the military balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran.

Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, meanwhile, reach back much further, to the Thirty Years' War, which engulfed Central Europe in the 17th century. Here’s Brzezkinski, in an interview with Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf: 

I see some parallels between what's happening in the Middle East and what happened in Europe during the Thirty Years' War several centuries ago, namely the rising of religious identification as the principal motive for political action, and with terribly destructive consequences. 

All these analogies have their benefits and drawbacks, though as with invocations of 1939, it’s probably wise to be cautious about using them as a blueprint for action.

It may also be that situations in which strong states meddle in the affairs of weaker ones, and violence within those weak states breaks out along ethnic and religious lines are actually not that historically unusual, which is not to say that the latest example of this pattern isn't extremely alarming.