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Tall order

Jue, 11/09/2014 - 04:39

LAYING out a military strategy toward the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in his speech to the nation on Wednesday night, Barack Obama spun out a string of nuanced messages. He sought to portray the danger of the ruthless insurgent army as a potential, but not an imminent, threat to the United States. He warned jihadists “if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven” in either Iraq or Syria. Yet he pledged no boots on the ground in either country, and just 475 more American troops to supply, train and assist the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Moreover, he promised that America would not be going it alone but proceeding with a “broad coalition” of other nations.

The mission to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS carries significant risks and will keep American military pilots busy. While warning that “it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL [an alternate abbreviation of the group's name],” Mr Obama wisely provided no whiff of a timetable. Nonetheless, he did not explain how air power alone could realistically achieve the mission, even after years of strikes. Zack Beauchamp explains the depth of the challenge at Vox. While...Continue reading

Too far, too fast?

Dom, 07/09/2014 - 23:04

THE cascade of rulings invalidating state-level same-sex marriage prohibitions now includes decisions from three federal appellate courts. Last Thursday the seventh circuit court of appeals thwarted gay marriage bans in Wisconsin and Indiana, joining the fourth and tenth circuit courts that have issued recent rulings nullifying one man-one woman marriage laws in Virginia, Utah and Oklahoma. The fifth and sixth circuits are up next. The Supreme Court is widely expected to review decisions from one or more of these jurisdictions in the coming year.

As speculation turns to how the justices will handle the tidal wave of judicial support for same-sex marriage that their United States v Windsor decision gutting the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) set off a year ago, it might be natural to assume that we’re gearing up for another 4-4 right-left split, with Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle. How Justice Kennedy would rule is indeed an open and highly interesting question, but I think it is premature to assume that the court’s four liberals—Stephen...Continue reading

Standard operating procedure exposed

Sáb, 06/09/2014 - 03:15

DURING his successful campaign for governor of Virginia in 2009, Bob McDonnell ran as an ordinary kid from the suburbs of Washington. The fact that he was in position to win an office previously held by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry made clear, he said, that anything was possible with hard work, grit and determination. Unfortunately, the perseverance and attention to detail that elevated him to the governor’s office served him less well when he deployed them for the purposes of illicit enrichment. On September 4th Mr McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in Richmond federal court on 11 corruption charges, stemming from $177,000 in gifts, trips and sweetheart loans. He plans to appeal, but assuming the verdict stands faces up to 20 years in jail.

Mr McDonnell, once seen as a rising Republican star, was undone by his relationship with Jonnie Williams Sr, a businessman whose company sold a dietary supplement called Anatabloc. It is derived from tobacco, historically a leading cash crop in the state, and Mr Williams wanted Virginia to approve research of the product in government-run teaching hospitals and to make it available to government...Continue reading

Pandering and other sins

Jue, 04/09/2014 - 00:39

AMERICA'S two-party system is a creaking monstrosity that has helped bring its politics to a grinding halt. The country urgently needs a nationally competitive third party (if not a fourth and a fifth) to crack up its frozen ideological landscape, and to shift incentives away from the politics of total resistance and towards deal-making and compromise. That said, it is not entirely clear just how big a role the two-party system plays in creating America's policy paralysis. Many factors have combined to hobble American governance. How important is the two-party system, specifically?

Salomon Orellana, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, thinks it plays a big role. In a post at the Monkey Cage, Mr Orellana argues that in two-party systems, politicians tend to "pander", promising voters easy material gains without corresponding costs. He applies this theory to the issue of climate change.


In two-party systems, when one party panders on material comfort (e.g., “gasoline prices have risen under the current government”) or even survival (e.g., “carbon taxes will cost jobs”) versus doing something about climate change, the other party feels great pressure to follow suit. This dynamic also tends to reduce...Continue reading

Why the Democrats will probably lose

Lun, 01/09/2014 - 20:08

NOT all the major polling models give Republicans a clear edge to capture the Senate this autumn, but most do. The New York Times’ “The Upshot” puts the chances at 65%, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight most recently called it “in the neighborhood of 60-40” and the Washington Post’s “Election Lab” gives the GOP a 51% shot. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium is the outlier, giving the Democrats a 70% chance of holding the majority. The obvious reasons for the GOP’s advantage are technical, as we wrote earlier this month. More vulnerable Democrats are up for re-election this year than vulnerable Republicans. The GOP needs to take away six seats from the Democrats, and is already nearly assured of winning three; of the six or seven competitive races (depending on who’s counting), Republicans must win just three to gain a majority. Add in Barack Obama’s...Continue reading

Slap-shots and tolerance

Dom, 31/08/2014 - 14:23

I GREW up in the 1980s rooting for the Washington Capitals, a hockey team that at the time was best described as hopeless. Over the past decade I have enjoyed the exploits of a much better version of that team, graced with a captain, forward* Alex Ovechkin (pictured), who last year led the NHL in goals for the second year in a row. Mr Ovechkin is a Russian who got his start playing for Dynamo Moscow, and yesterday, as Zack Beauchamp of Vox noticed, he put up an Instagram picture that seems to advance a pro-Russian position on the conflict in Ukraine. In the picture, Mr Ovechkin holds up a sign bearing the hashtag #savechildrenfromfascism. Beside it, he writes (in Russian): "Our grandfathers and grandmothers saw all the horrors of fascism! We will not allow it in our time!" Outside Russia, the question of which side in the conflict has more fascist characteristics is considered...Continue reading

Fight the powers that be

Vie, 29/08/2014 - 00:40

WHAT do America's right-wing tea-partiers and left-wing progressives have in common? Enough, says the journalist Clive Crook, that they can both usefully be called liberals—in the global sense of the word. In a review of our former colleague Edmund Fawcett's book "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea", Mr Crook approves of the work's identification of four basic characteristics of liberalism: "acceptance of conflict, resistance to power, belief in progress and civic respect." America's right and left both broadly adhere to these liberal principles, and that separates their ideologies from authoritarian, totalitarian or theocratic ones.

Mr Crook is right that there are certain core values accepted on both the right and left sides of American politics. I'm particularly interested in the second one on this list, "resistance to power". One of the reasons why Americans have periodically been able to attain bipartisan agreement on foreign policy is that both parties can be rallied to oppose dictatorial or oppressive regimes. Broad bipartisan majorities supported America's...Continue reading

Arbitrary and capricious

Jue, 28/08/2014 - 05:20

OVER 1.3 billion people, nearly the population of China, are now active Facebook users. That means a whopping 18% of the world's population logs on to the site at least once a month. The social network is the largest community ever: a place where ideas, stories, images and perspectives are communicated instantly and widely across national, geographical and ideological boundaries.  

But whenever a public forum for dialogue is established, rules arise, and Facebook is no exception. The website maintains a list of community standards “[t]o balance the needs and interests of a global population.” Facebook prohibits threats of violence to oneself or others, bullying and harassment, hate speech, graphic content and nudity. You might argue with these categories—an interesting debate has recently sprung up over how social media sites should handle beheadings and other images of extreme violence—but because it is a private organisation, not a government, Facebook has no obligation to publish anything it does not want to broadcast. The First...Continue reading

The ice-cream man cometh

Mié, 27/08/2014 - 09:45

LAST night Doug Ducey, Arizona’s treasurer and a former head of Cold Stone Creamery, a chain of ice-cream parlours, emerged victorious in a six-way Republican primary with 37% of the vote to become the party's candidate for November's gubernatorial race. This put him more than 15 points ahead of the second-place finisher, Scott Smith, and more than 20 points in front of Christine Jones, a former executive at GoDaddy, a web-hosting firm based in Scottsdale.

Immigration was the most prominent issue of the race, and provided momentum to Mr Ducey’s once flagging campaign after national concern erupted over the number of children entering America illegally in June. He wants more fences, satellites and guards to keep immigrants from crossing the border, and more police and prosecutors to crack down on those who make it over. He decried the federal government’s “botched” handling of border security but kept quiet on thornier questions of immigration reform and paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to America as kids. While Mr Smith eventually won the backing of Arizona’s outgoing governor, Jan Brewer (pictured), Mr...Continue reading

Too accommodating

Lun, 25/08/2014 - 20:22

RELIGIOUS organisations are up in arms over the latest change to the Obamacare mandate that employers provide insurance with free birth control to their workers. What is odd is that the change is actually designed to exempt them from the mandate.

Religious groups never liked the health-care mandate. They were also quick to pounce on the administration's first solution, which exempted religious groups if they filled out a form that essentially outsourced the provision of birth control to a third party. Critics complained that filling out the form implicated them in the provision of (what they consider to be) abortifacient devices and pills. The Supreme Court has been sympathetic to these concerns. The justices offered their own provisional solution in Wheaton College v Burwell, which let religious non-profits secure an exemption from the mandate without filling out a form. Non-profits need only inform "the Secretary of Health and Human Services [HHS] in writing that it is a non-profit organization that...Continue reading

Napa shaken, Bay Area stirred

Dom, 24/08/2014 - 16:28

LIKE many other residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, your correspondent was jolted out of bed at around 3.30am today by an earthquake that made his house sway like a boat on water. The cause was an aftershock from a magnitude 6.1 quake which occurred near the town of Napa. This was the biggest seismic event to hit the Bay Area since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which hit a magnitude of 6.9 and caused over 60 deaths.

So far, there have been no reports of fatalities this time around, though police reports suggest there have been numerous casualties, with two people seriously injured. Buildings in the town of Napa have suffered structural damage, stores have seen their wares scattered over the floor by the shaking, and some parts of highways have been closed as a precaution. (This post will be updated as more information becomes available.)

Given the epicentre of the quake was in the north of the Bay Area, Silicon Valley much further to the south is likely to have been unaffected by its aftershocks. But the quake is a salutary reminder that some of the world’s leading companies have head offices that sit in a part of the world that is riddled with earthquake faults. Expect plenty of questions to be raised in the coming days about the state of contingency plans. The quake should also reinforce the efforts of authorities in San Francisco and...Continue reading

Please shoot me

Vie, 22/08/2014 - 07:09

IN THE first part of VICE News's extraordinary five-part documentary on ISIS, released earlier this month, a bearded and strangely innocent-looking young press officer who goes by the name Abu Mosa invites America to attack his movement. "I say to America that the Islamic Caliphate has been established, and we will not stop," Abu Mosa says with a shy smile, a Kalashnikov leaning easily in his right hand. "Don't be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House."

America has since begun attacking ISIS with air and drone strikes, and on Wednesday, in response to the beheading of James Foley, a photojournalist, Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to the fight. But the president has not obliged Abu Mosa's wish for America to send in ground forces. For one thing, the airstrikes Continue reading

Are videos of Islamic violence propaganda?

Jue, 21/08/2014 - 13:17

SOCIAL MEDIA erupted this week with footage of James Foley, an American journalist, brutally beheaded at the hands of ISIS. YouTube removed one version of the video, citing a violation of their policy on violent content. On Tuesday, Twitter announced a new policy that it would remove images and video of the deceased at the request of family members. Accounts that featured the graphic imagery started disappearing from the site. Though Twitter can now remove certain images only at the request of family members, Twitter users started urging friends not to share the content anyway. In less than two hours, the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout had more than 3,800 tweets.

Should platforms like YouTube and Twitter really have the power to censor what content we can or cannot see? At least in America, the suppression of disturbing or offensive content, if it does not incite violence, is a direct violation of our principles of free speech. Especially in this instance, it seems deeply inappropriate to respond to authoritarianism with authoritarian action.

Censorship proponents are of the mind that the ISIS video constitutes propaganda and...Continue reading

What is Ferguson doing on Europe's front pages?

Mar, 19/08/2014 - 18:29

I WOKE up today to find my Dutch morning paper, the Volkskrant, dominated by a full-page spread on the results of the independent autopsy on Michael Brown, the shooting victim whose death has plunged the town of Ferguson, Missouri, into protests and riots. The situation in Ferguson also headlined today's editions of Spain's El Pais, Portugal's Publico, Denmark's Politiken, France's Liberation, and Germany's Der TagespiegelContinue reading

An awesome turn of events

Lun, 18/08/2014 - 18:26

AN INDICTMENT is a bit of a buzz-kill. On Friday, Rick Perry joined Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in the brotherhood of highly ranked Republicans who can personally testify to this, among other things. In Mr Perry’s case, the charges are coercion and abuse of official capacity. Those are serious criminal matters; if convicted of the latter, a felony, he could face up to 99 years in prison.

At first the indictments seemed like a real blow. Mr Perry is planning to step down as governor of Texas next year, after 14 years on the job. He is widely thought to be considering another run at the Republican presidential nomination, and he had been riding high this summer, at least among Republicans, after a robust response to the influx of unaccompanied immigrant children into Texas’s Rio Grande Valley and a string of well-received appearances around the country. Just last week, in high spirits, Mr Perry offered a candid self-assessment in Iowa: Continue reading

Trigger happy

Vie, 15/08/2014 - 18:31

THE shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, is a reminder that civilians—innocent or guilty—are far more likely to be shot by police in America than in any other rich country. In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police—409 with guns. That figure may well be an underestimate. Not only is it limited to the number of people who were shot while committing a crime, but also, amazingly, reporting the data is voluntary.

Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012 the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 the police force of one small American city, Albuquerque in New Mexico, shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more...Continue reading

Guns, police and the people

Vie, 15/08/2014 - 14:03

FOR the past week the people have been in the streets of the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Most have been waving placards, raising their arms in the air and shouting, "Hands up, don't shoot!" A few have tossed rocks or Molotov cocktails, and in at least one instance some seem to have fired guns. The police have been in the streets of Ferguson, too. They have been firing tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and pointing assault rifles at protestors from atop their armoured vehicles. (They have also manhandled and arrested reporters.)

The cause of the conflict is the latest in a...Continue reading

Mind the gap

Jue, 14/08/2014 - 16:02

NOT only are black people in America more likely to lack employment, be poor, get arrested and serve time in prison than their white counterparts, but they also have less time on earth to enjoy such mortal frustrations. A new study published in Health Affairs by Sam Harper and Jay Kaufman of McGill University and Richard MacLehose of the University of Minnesota has found that the gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites in America persists, despite policies aimed at closing it. (Other racial groups could not feature in the study because records concerning them were too scarce for the period scrutinised, according to Mr Harper.)

This is not to say there hasn’t been some progress over the years. Between 1990 and 2009 the difference in average life expectancy for black and white men narrowed from 8.1 to 5.4 years, and for women from 5.5 to 3.8 years. But some places made more headway than others. Washington, DC had the largest gap between blacks and whites of both sexes in 1990 (14.4 years for men and 10.4 for women) and saw the least improvement overall (reducing the spread by just...Continue reading

Hillary's jab

Mar, 12/08/2014 - 20:59

HILLARY CLINTON is positioning herself to run for president in 2016 (you heard it here first!), so she needs to put some distance between herself and whatever aspects of Barack Obama's presidency voters are currently unhappy with. She made a move in that direction in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg over the weekend, obliquely criticising Mr Obama's failure to give military support to moderate rebels in Syria early on, which she claimed was one reason for the rise of the radical movement that used to call itself ISIS and now calls itself simply the "Islamic State". (These guys really know how to troll the international media. Imagine the conundrums editors would face if the rebels in eastern Ukraine had called their quasi-state "Democracy". "The Ukrainian army continued its offensive against Democracy today...")

Mrs Clinton's critique of Obama administration policy was not as harsh as Mr Goldberg and some other newspapers portrayed it. As Continue reading

A front-row view

Mar, 12/08/2014 - 17:29

WRITING about politics means spending a lot of time looking up from the front row of the auditorium as speakers on stage talk over your head. This in turn means becoming familiar with a place that most politicians keep hidden—the undefined region where the chin becomes the neck. I don’t know of a good word in English for this place: Russian has podbaradok, which translates as “under the beard” and could be borrowed if beards were not so rare at the top level of American politics. In a whole day of speeches at the Family Leadership Summit, a gathering of conservative Christians in Ames, Iowa on August 9th, the only person with any facial hair was Iowa’s governor, Terry Branstad, who has a neat moustache.

Processions of politicians giving stump speeches can prompt the mind to wander, partly because what is said is rarely original or changes anything very much. The exception to this norm is generally when a speaker challenges the assumptions of the audience and yet manages to win them over. Rick Santorum got closer to this than anyone else speaking inside the brutalist Stephens auditorium, which held the summit....Continue reading