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A Wee Question About That Residual Force Everyone Keeps Blathering About

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 1:28 PM EDT

Here's something I don't get. Republicans seem to universally hold the following two opinions about Iraq and ISIS:

  1. President Obama is to blame for the military success of ISIS because he declined to keep a residual force in Iraq after 2011.
  2. In the fight against ISIS, we certainly don't want to send in combat troops. No no no.

"Residual force" has become something of a talisman for conservative critics of Obama's Iraq policy. It's sort of like "providing arms," the all-purpose suggestion for every conflict from hawks who know the public won't stand for sending in ground troops but who want to support something more muscular than sanctions. It's a wonderful sound bite because it sounds sensible and informed as long as you don't think too hard about it (what arms? for whom? is anyone trained to use them? etc.). Luckily, most people don't think too hard about it.

"Residual force" sounds good too. But if we don't want boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS, what exactly would it have done? Hang around Baghdad to buck up the morale of the Iraqi forces that came fleeing back after encountering ISIS forces? Conduct ever more "training"? Or what? Can someone tell me just what everyone thinks this magical residual force would have accomplished?

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Not-Quite-Supermoon Blogging - 7 September 2014

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 12:04 PM EDT

I didn't actually get around to hauling out my camera for Monday's supermoon (how many of these things do we get every year, anyway?), but I did snap a few pictures on Sunday. So in the spirit of better late than never, here's one of them. The clouds and the colors were kind of interesting, even if the picture itself is so-so.

Workplace Wellness Programs Are Just an Excuse to Lower Your Pay

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

I don't like workplace wellness programs. This isn't because I think they do no good. It's because I don't like the idea of employers deciding that they can dictate my personal health choices. Or any of my other personal choices, for that matter. Maybe it's for my own good, but so what? Lots of things are for my own good. Nonetheless, I'm an adult, and I get to choose these kinds of things for myself, even if I sometimes make bad choices.

Today, however, Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll delight me by surveying the literature on wellness programs and bolstering my personal pique with actual facts. It turns out that wellness programs, in fact, generally don't do any good:

Rigorous studies tend to find that wellness programs don’t save money and, with few exceptions, do not appreciably improve health. This is often because additional health screenings built into the programs encourage overuse of unnecessary care, pushing spending higher without improving health.

However, this doesn’t mean that employers aren’t right, in a way. Wellness programs can achieve cost savings — for employers — by shifting higher costs of care onto workers. In particular, workers who don’t meet the demands and goals of wellness programs (whether by not participating at all, or by failing to meet benchmarks like a reduction in body mass index) end up paying more. Financial incentives to get healthier sometimes simply become financial penalties on workers who resist participation or who aren’t as fit. Some believe this can be a form of discrimination.

This is basically what I've long suspected. For the most part, wellness programs are a means to reduce pay for employees who don't participate, and there are always going to be a fair number of curmudgeons who refuse to participate. Voila! Lower payroll expenses! And the best part is that employers can engage in this cynical behavior while retaining a smug public conviction that they're just acting for the common good. Bah.

Did I mention that I don't like workplace wellness programs?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 11, 2014

Thu Sep. 11, 2014 10:50 AM EDT

The 2014 Tripler Fisher House 8k Hero and Remembrance Run, Walk or Roll on Ford Island memorializes more than 7,000 US service members who died since the September 11th attacks on this day in 2001. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Diana Quinlan)

The New York Times Just Issued the Best Correction You'll Read All Week

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 10:47 AM EDT
Former President Dick Cheney

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran the following correction on a story about Dick Cheney telling House Republicans to "embrace a strong military and reject a rising isolationism in his party":

Correction: September 9, 2014

An earlier version of a summary with this article misstated the former title of Dick Cheney. He was vice president, not president.

This is funny because many people believe that Cheney wielded an unprecedented level of influence over former President George W. Bush.

The Rich Are Eating Richer, the Poor Are Eating Poorer

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Over the past decade, the number of farmers markets nationwide has approximately doubled, and the community-supported agriculture model of farming, where people buy shares in the harvest of a nearby farms, has probably grown even faster. Has this explosion of local produce consumption improved Americans' diets? A couple of new studies paint a disturbing picture.

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Here's Why Congressional Approval for War Is So Important

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 10:52 PM EDT

In my previous post, I complained that I wasn't sure what would prevent further escalation in Iraq "aside from Obama's personal convictions." A friend emails to ask just what I'd like to see. In the end, aren't the president's personal convictions all that prevent any military operation from escalating?

It's a fair point, and I'm glad he brought it up. The answer, I think, lies in congressional approval for military action, and this is one of the reasons I think it's so important. If Obama is truly serious about not sending combat troops into ISIS-held areas in Iraq, then let's get a congressional resolution that puts that in writing. Let's get an authorization for war that spells out a geographical area; puts a limit on US troop deployments; and specifically defines what those troops can do.

Would this be airtight? Of course not. Presidents can always find a way to stretch things, and Congress can always decide to authorize more troops. But nothing is airtight—nor should it be. It's always possible that events on the ground really will justify stronger action someday. However, what it does do is simple: It forces the president to explicitly request an escalation and it forces Congress to explicitly authorize his request. At the very least, that prevents a slow, stealthy escalation that flies under the radar of public opinion.

Presidents don't like having their actions constrained. No one does. But in most walks of life that deal with power and the use of force, we understand that constraint is important. Surely, then, there's nowhere it's more important than in matters of war and peace. And that's one of the reasons that congressional authorization for war is so essential.

Obama's Iraq Speech: Light on Substance, and Maybe That's a Good Thing

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 9:54 PM EDT

Well, that was pretty anticlimactic. Here is President Obama's shiny new plan for defeating ISIS:

  1. More airstrikes, including strikes in Syria.
  2. A few hundred advisors to work with Iraqi troops. They will provide training, equipment, and intelligence.
  3. Counterterrorism to prevent ISIS attacks.
  4. Humanitarian aid.

We are, presumably, already engaged in #3 and #4. We're partially engaged in #1. Basically, then Obama is proposing to (a) expand the air war and (b) provide more aid to the Iraqi army. That's really not an awful lot—which is fine with me.

Will this work? Airstrikes by themselves are obviously limited in what they can accomplish. They can frustrate ISIS plans in specific areas, but they can't do a lot more than that. As we've known all along, real success depends on the Iraqi military. Unfortunately, given the fact that we spent years training Iraqi forces and ended up with an army that cut and run at the first sight of ISIS forces, I have my doubts that further training will really do that much good. But if it doesn't, there's little we can do anyway. So it's probably our only option.

The big question, of course, is whether our assistance will stay limited. If the Iraqi military fails, as it may, will we start pouring in more troops? Obama was clear on this: "We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq." Still, sometimes events run away with things, and I'm not sure what's going to prevent a slow accretion of more and more US forces aside from Obama's personal convictions. This is a thinner reed than I'd like even if I believe that he's entirely sincere in his desire to avoid escalation. We'll just have to wait and see.

In any case, that's really all we got tonight. I'd like to write something longer and more insightful, but there just weren't enough specifics in the speech to justify that. The last third of the speech was mostly platitudes about partners, chairing a UN meeting, America is great, God bless the troops, etc. There wasn't an awful lot there.

Does the Web Seem Way Slow Today? It May Be Soon If You Don't Get in the FCC's Face

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 6:14 PM EDT

No, the internet isn't actually broken today. Those spinning wheels of death you may have seen on Netflix, Tumblr, Reddit, Mozilla, and hundreds of other sites are part of Internet Slowdown Day, an effort to show what might happen if the internet actually did get broken by the bureaucrats at the Federal Communication Commission. The FCC will soon vote on a proposal to essentially eliminate net neutrality, the policy that forces internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T to treat all internet traffic the same. Here are five things you should know about what's happening today:

The Participating websites aren't actually slower: Not even Netflix is crazy enough to make a political statement by throttling itself. The spinning page-load symbols on participating sites are just widgets (see below), which anyone can download here. Some activists are also replacing their social media profile pics with images like this:

In this sense, Internet Slowdown Day is very similar to the SOPA blackout of 2012, when people and major sites across the internet blackened their logos and profile pictures to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have given the federal government wide latitude to enforce copyright law. SOPA showed that when major internet companies team up with grassroots activists, politicians tend to listen.

The real story is who is not participating: Although Google claims to support net neutrality, it's conspicuously silent about Internet Slowdown Day. Last year, Wired's Ryan Singel noted that the terms of service for Google Fiber, the company's relatively new ISP division, included some of the same provisions that Google had long decried as hostile to an open internet. By prohibiting customers from attaching "servers" to its network, Google Fiber was contradicting the principle of treating all packets of information equally, prompting Singel to accuse the search giant of a "flip-flop" on net neutrality. It's not that simple, of course, but tech companies such as Google clearly have much less to gain from net neutrality now that they're multibillion-dollar behemoths. Even if they don't take on the role of actual ISPs, large tech firms can easily afford to pay cable companies for faster service, creating a competitive firewall between their services and those offered by leaner startups.

In america, every day is already an internet slowdown day: Pushing internet traffic into "slow" lanes might be more tolerable if those lanes were still really fast in absolute terms. Sadly, however, the United States ranks a pathetic 25th among nations for download speeds:

This show is bigger than the superbowl: The net neutrality debate has generated a record 1,477,301 public comments to the FCC, the commission said today. As Politico notes, that breaks the previous record of 1.4 million complaints generated by Janet Jackson's 2004 wardrobe malfunction. The number of comments to the FCC will likely continue to grow as Internet Slowdown Day encourages visitors to voice their objections.

the fcc is not your friend: There's no question that the FCC is facing a public backlash against its plan to gut net neutrality. The question is whether the outrage will be sufficient to change its course. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is a major Obama bundler and former head of two major industry groups that staunchly oppose net neutrality. He's likely to side with the cable industry unless essentially forced to do otherwise. All of which is to say that the bar is incredibly high for Internet Slowdown Day. Until "net neutrality" becomes a household term, don't count on Washington to care about it.

Let's Not Give ISIS Exactly What They Want

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 4:57 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote a post noting that a supposedly war-weary public had suddenly become awfully war happy. "All it took," I said, "was a carefully stagecrafted beheading video and the usual gang of conservative jingoists to exploit it." Here's a Twitter conversation that followed (lightly edited for clarity):

DS: Think of what you wrote: "All it took was...beheading"? I opposed W's but this is what wars are made from & I think rightly so.

Me: Really? So any group anywhere in the world merely needs to commit an atrocity to draw us into war?

DS: On what other basis should wars be fought if not to stop groups from committing atrocities against Americans?

I'm not trying to pick on anyone in particular here, but it's pretty discouraging that this kind of attitude is so common. There's no question that the beheading of American citizens by a gang of vicious thugs is the kind of thing that makes your blood boil. Unless you hail from Vulcan, your gut reaction is that you want to find the barbarians who did this and crush them.

But that shouldn't be your final reaction. This is not an era of conventional military forces with overwhelming power and no real fear of blowback. It's an era of stateless terrorists whose ability to commit extremely public atrocities is pretty much unlimited. And while atrocities can have multiple motivations, one of the key reasons for otherwise pointless actions like one-off kidnappings and beheadings is their ability to either provoke overreactions or successfully extort ransoms. Unfortunately, Americans are stupidly addicted to the former and Europeans seem to be stupidly addicted to the latter, and that's part of what keeps this stuff going.

In any case, a moment's thought should convince you that we're being manipulated. We've read account after account about ISIS and its remarkably sophisticated command and publicity apparatus. The beheading video is part of that. It's a very calculated, very deliberate attempt to get us to respond stupidly. It's not even a very subtle manipulation. It's just an especially brutal one.

So if we're smart, we won't give them what they want. Instead we'll respond coldly and meticulously. We'll fight on our terms, not theirs. We'll intervene if and only if the Iraqi government demonstrates that it can take the lead and hold the ground they take. We'll forego magical thinking about counterinsurgencies. We won't commit Western troops in force because we know from experience that this doesn't work. We'll avoid pitched battles and instead take advantage of our chances when they arise. Time is on our side.

Above all, we won't allow a small band of medieval theocrats to manipulate us. We need to stop giving them exactly what they want. We need to stop doing stupid stuff.