World

When the Next Terrorist Attack Comes, Will We Be Capable of Keeping Our Heads?

(Yui Mok/PA Wire - Press Association via AP Images)
(Yui Mok/PA Wire -Press Association via AP Images) I magine it's six months from now. A 19-year-old man—whom we'll later learn was in communication with members of ISIL in the Middle East—walks on to the Mall in Washington on a weekend afternoon. Groups of tourists are walking about from one monument to another. He takes his backpack off his shoulders, reaches in, and removes the semiautomatic rifle he bought a month before at a gun show in Virginia, where he didn't have to submit to a background check (though it wouldn't have mattered, because his record is clean). He opens fire on the crowd, and before U.S. Park Police are able to reach him and put him down, he has killed six people and wounded eleven others. In his pocket is a note announcing his devotion ISIL, and that he is striking at the United States in retaliation for its illegal war on the true Muslims building a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Now that we have begun a new military engagement in the Middle East, this event or...

Missiles and Rebels: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

(Rex Features via AP Images)
L ast weekend, the New York Times reported on a meeting President Obama had with a group of foreign policy experts and pundits to talk about combatting ISIL, among other topics. "Asked by one of the columnists what he would do if his strategy did not work and he had to escalate further," reporter Peter Baker wrote, "Mr. Obama rejected the premise. 'I'm not going to anticipate failure at this point,' he said." Now of course, this meeting wasn't about soliciting ideas so much as it was about convincing important opinion leaders that the administration is on the right track, so there was naturally going to be some spinning. But now that this military campaign has begun in earnest, there are few more important questions than this one: Is the administration anticipating failure? And what are they doing about it? We've been through this once before. In 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration and its supporters told us that the Iraq War would be a piece of cake. We'd storm into Baghdad, be "...

ISIL, Iraq and Syria: Why Military Action Won’t Do The Trick

(AP Photo, File)
O n September 10, 2014, President Obama announced a new strategy aimed at “ degrading and destroying ” ISIL (also known as ISIS and the Islamic State). Ideally, the United States should avoid fighting in Iraq and Syria. Now that that the U.S. has committed itself to bombing Iraq and Syria, however, ISIL and the threat it represents should be placed into a historical context that until now has only sporadically informed U.S. plans. In 1994 the United States faced a similar Salafi Islamist non-state entity: the Afghan Taliban. ( Salafism is a strict interpretation of Islamic theology, as laid out by the Qur’an and the Hadith, wherein life must adhere as closely as possible to the conditions that existed during the religion’s first three generations). ISIL, like the Taliban, is a militant Islamist reaction to failed governance. Examining American-Taliban history can help American leaders understand the threat posed by ISIL, the dangers of trying to defeat the movement outright, as well...

The United Kingdom Nearly Died for Margaret Thatcher's Sins

(Press Association via AP Images)
W hy on earth did the Scots, largely quiescent as part of Great Britain for three centuries, suddenly become the mouse that roared? It wasn't because they became besotted watching re-runs of Braveheart or Rob Roy , or even because they coveted more of a share of North Sea oil revenues. No, the Scots got sick and tired of Thatcherite policies imposed from London. Thanks to the partial form of federalism known as "devolution" provided by the Labour government of Tony Blair in 1997, Scotland got to keep such progressive policies as free higher education and an intact national health service, while the rest of the U.K. partly privatized the health service and began compelling young people to go into debt to finance college like their American cousins. But as long as progressive Scotland, with just one Conservative M.P. sent to the national parliament at Westminster, remained part of Great Britain, its own policies were in jeopardy. So the near-miss referendum was one part revived Scottish...

Why ISIL Wants to Be In a War With America

The closing image of the latest video from ISIL.
As we continue to debate our new war, or semi-war, or whatever you want to call it, it's important for people like me whose job it is to write about political developments not to pretend to know more than we do. It's not always easy to restrain yourself, since if you're a political blogger you have to have an opinion about everything (and fast). When we get into a topic like this that touches on so many different areas—the presidency, Congress, public opinion, terrorism, and so on—it can be difficult if not impossible to stay in the lane of the topics where you actually know what you're talking about. All of which is an extended throat-clearing to let you know that I'm going to be speculating a little, but I think this is an important question: When it comes to the United States's actions, what does ISIL want? The occasion for this question is a new video that has been released , purportedly created by the group, that apes the form of a movie trailer (I was able to watch it here , but...

Republicans Go Boldly to (Sort Of) Support Obama on ISIL

For months, when you asked Republicans what they wanted to do about ISIL, they would be quick to assure everyone that they didn't want to deploy large numbers of ground troops. Trainers, intelligence folks, coordinators, sure — but they're very clear that they aren't advocating a re-invasion of Iraq. Whether their reticence about ground troops has its roots in the politics of renewing a desperately unpopular war, or it's because they genuinely believe it would be a bad idea, they were unambiguous on that point. What they did advocate was arming and training Syrian rebels. Likewise, it might be because Barack Obama wasn't doing that and therefore it was a way to be "tougher" than him, or it might be that they think it would make a real difference. But either way, that's the policy they advocated. And now that policy is one of the pillars of the anti-ISIL strategy Obama is laying out, so that's the part Republicans in Congress are getting ready to line up behind : President Obama's plan...

Two Cheers for Obama: Nobody Makes the Best Out of Bad Situation Like He Does

(U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Jessica Hines)
(U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Jessica Hines) An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off for Poland, September 5, 2014, from Aviano Air Base, Italy. This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post . I t took President Barack Obama a long time, and multiple stumbles, to back into a foreign policy role that looks something like leadership. If Russian President Putin is agreeing to a cease-fire in Ukraine that just might hold, the U.S.-led combination of pressure and restraint deserves much of the credit. Putin considers the loss of the Ukraine one of the great tragedies of Russian history, and before this conflict is over Putin will probably demand and get greater regional autonomy for Russian-majority Eastern Ukraine. But that beats an annexation or a war. At the outset of this conflict, Germany was prepared to subordinate the independence of Ukraine to long-standing German economic ties with Russia. Chancellor Merkel's new toughness, which helped alter the Russian calculus, would not...

Endless 9/11s: How the Bush-Cheney Response to the World Trade Center Attack Shaped Today’s Terrors

(AP Photo/Alexandre Fuchs)
T hirteen years ago today, al-Qaeda terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, took out a chunk of the Pentagon, and very nearly crashed a fourth jetliner into a target assumed to be the Capitol or the White House. That attack, in the wake of the Bush administration’s willful refusal to pay attention to increasingly urgent warnings from its own counter-terrorism officials, set in motion a series of events whose aftermath we are still living through. Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush decided that the real culprit was Saddam Hussein, and made war on Iraq. ISIL is, in part, the creature of the regional destabilization and Islamist backlash that followed. The Bush administration, at first an illegitimate and feeble presidency, found a new voice and a new purpose. Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took over. In the USA PATRIOT Act, a long wish list of the most extreme warrantless surveillance techniques was rushed into law, and the U.S. became more of...

Just How Big a Threat to the U.S. Is ISIL?

It didn't surprise anyone that most Republicans were displeased with President Obama's speech about ISIS (which he called ISIL, another of its names) last night, and it would be natural to conclude that the key division at work is between a president and party reluctant to use military force abroad, and an opposition party with near-limitless enthusiasm for military adventures. There's plenty of truth there, but there's an even more fundamental divide, even if it's not going to be spoken by President Obama or that many Democrats. The real question is whether ISIL actually constitutes a threat to the United States. For Republicans, it's so obvious that ISIS does threaten us that there isn't any use debating it . ISIL has seized large swaths of territory and picked up weapons left behind by the Iraqi army, they're well-funded thanks to pillaging banks and selling oil on the black market, and they have dreams of a caliphate spanning the entire Middle East. So of course they're a threat...

In Fight Against ISIL, Obama Finds Himself Facing Michael Corleone's Dilemma

(AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)
I f you think that American power and leadership is best demonstrated by our ability to blow things up, this probably wasn’t the speech for you . While President Barack Obama laid out a number of steps he would be taking to ramp up the effort against ISIL (the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or, as they now call themselves, the “Islamic State”), including, in addition to air strikes in Iraq, possibly striking the group inside Syria, the speech was much less than the full-throated call to war that his most hawkish critics wanted. Coming in the wake of the heinous beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, clearly stung by criticism of his admission last week that “[w]e don’t have a strategy yet” for addressing ISIL’s presence in Syria, and pressured by relentless drumbeat to “do something”—which in Washington almost always translates to: “Make more war!” —the president obviously felt the need to explain that, yes, we are doing something, and here’s what...

The Power of Images, Real and Assumed

(Rex Features via AP Images)
In the last couple of weeks we've seen two interesting examples of the power of images to change public discussion in a way facts alone often can't. I'm talking, of course, about the video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee unconscious in an elevator, and the images of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff just before they were beheaded by ISIS. You can say that images have a unique power, which is true in some ways but often overstated in others. What's indisputable though, and evident in both these cases, is that the dissemination of a powerful image makes powerful people change the decisions they make . And that can be what changes everything. Let's talk about Foley and Sotloff first. There's a narrative developing which says that the American people were tired of war and reluctant to act against ISIS, then they saw the pictures of those two Americans moments before their brutal murders, and that hardened their hearts and gave them the thirst for revenge that fed support for...

Mitt Romney, the Charles Atlas of International Relations

Ha! Terrific! (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
In today's Washington Post, one Willard Mitt Romney — you remember him — has penned an op-ed lamenting the fact that the United States military has grown so itty-bitty that it's left us unable to accomplish anything on the world stage. In an epic feat of straw-man construction, Romney boldly takes on those who want to leave America defended by nothing more than a few pea shooters and sling shots, demanding that we vastly increase our defense budget. Let's take a look at some of what he has to say: Russia invades, China bullies, Iran spins centrifuges, the Islamic State (a terrorist threat "beyond anything that we've seen," according to the defense secretary ) threatens — and Washington slashes the military. Reason stares. "Reason stares"? I'll have to confess my ignorance of whatever literary reference Mitt is tossing in here (the Google machine is unhelpful on this score, so I can't be the only one who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about), but is Washington really "slashing...

The Republican Quasi-Isolationists Change Their Tune

Yeah, it's about this guy. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
It looks like the debate over what to do about ISIS has given Republicans one fewer thing to argue about : A roiling national debate over how to deal with the radical Islamic State and other global hot spots has prompted a sudden shift in Republican politics, putting a halt to the anti-interventionist mood that had been gaining credence in the party. The change is evident on the campaign trail ahead of the November midterm elections and in recent appearances by the GOP’s prospective 2016 presidential candidates, with a near-universal embrace of stronger military actions against the group that has beheaded two American journalists. A hawkish tone has become integral to several key Republican Senate campaigns, with a group of candidates running in battleground states calling attention to their ties to veterans and their support for the U.S. military at every turn. The most notable shift has come from Rand Paul, who used to talk a lot about the dangers of interventionism and foreign...

The Limitations of Barack Obama's Rhetorical Repertoire

U.S. Army photo by Spec. Daniel J. Herrera
If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that Barack Obama is not good enough at making Americans feel angry and afraid. When he first ran for president, we were astounded at his rhetorical gifts, but in retrospect they seem so touchy-feely. He made his listeners feel things like hope, optimism, and inspiration. Which is all well and good, but a country that can't go more than a few years without invading somebody needs a leader who knows how to beat the war drums, get the blood pumping, ride his horse back and forth in front of the assembled troops and shout, " This day, we fight! " Barack Obama is not that leader. He doesn't do anger and fear, probably because he tends not to get angry or afraid. So who can step up to don that mantle? Little Joey Biden, that's who : Vice President Joe Biden used the strongest language to date from the Obama administration in response to the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff by ISIS militants. Speaking at the Portsmouth Naval...

Is Elizabeth Warren Just an Ordinary Politician?

Flickr/Edward Kimmel
Hero-worship is always risky in politics, because if you put all your hopes on one politician, eventually you're sure to be disappointed. And so it has come that Elizabeth Warren, who inspires more dewy-eyed infatuation than any other current Democratic officeholder, may have given her liberal admirers a reason to feel dismayed. This article from the Cape Cod Times is a week old, but it's just now making the rounds, and it shows that on one subject, Warren isn't quite the same strong progressive some might hope her to be. Here's what happened when a constituent criticized her vote to send an additional $225 million to Israel during the recent military conflict in Gaza: Warren told Bangert she appreciated his comments, but "we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one." "I think the vote was right, and I'll tell you why I think the vote was right," she said. "America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of...

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