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Surprise! Our Arab Allies Aren't Really Going to Do Anything to Help Us Fight ISIS

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 10:43 AM EDT

Here is the least surprising story of the day:

Many Arab governments grumbled quietly in 2011 as the United States left Iraq, fearful it might fall deeper into chaos or Iranian influence. Now, the United States is back and getting a less than enthusiastic welcome, with leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all finding ways on Thursday to avoid specific commitments to President Obama’s expanded military campaign against Sunni extremists.

....The tepid support could further complicate the already complex task Mr. Obama has laid out for himself in fighting the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: He must try to confront the group without aiding Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, or appearing to side with Mr. Assad’s Shiite allies, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, against discontented Sunnis across the Arab world.

If Arab countries just flatly didn't want to support our anti-ISIS effort, that wouldn't be surprising. American intervention in the Middle East hardly has an enviable history of success. It would be entirely understandable if they just wanted us to keep our noses out of things.

But that's not what's going on. It's not that they don't want American intervention. Many of these countries have been practically begging for it. The problem is that they want our help solely in support of their own sectarian and nationalist pursuits. They want America to commit an endless well of troops and arms in service of ancient enmities and murderous agendas that they themselves are unwilling to commit their own troops and money to. And for some reason, we keep playing along with the charade.

Fighting ISIS isn't really part of this agenda. It's Sunni; it's anti-Assad; and it's far away. Most of our putative allies in the Middle East either don't care very much about it or have actively supported it in the past. They'll pay lip service to destroying it now because they don't want to break with the United States entirely, but that's about it. It's just lip service.

By tomorrow they'll be back to privately griping that we haven't turned Iran into a glassy plain or something. And then, like a couple who knows their marriage is broken but can't quite bear the thought of divorce, we'll be back to stroking their egos and promising that we really do share their interests. We don't, thank God: we're not quite that depraved. We just want their oil and a sort of unstated tolerance of Israel.

It never changes. Next year the details will be slightly different, but we'll go through the same dance all over again. Hooray.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 12, 2014

Fri Sep. 12, 2014 10:29 AM EDT

Nathan Mitchell, an aviation machinist airman of the US Navy, performs maintenance on a helicopter. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Oscar Albert Moreno Jr.)

News Organizations Battle Pennsylvania Over Secret Source of Its Execution Drugs

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 1:59 PM EDT
A lethal injection chamber at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and four news organizations filed an emergency legal motion on Thursday, demanding that Pennsylvania reveal the source of its execution drugs.

Later this month, the state is scheduled to put 57-year-old Hubert Michael to death for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl in 1993. While the execution has been stayed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the ACLU fears the hold could be lifted at any time, opening the way for the first execution in Pennsylvania in more than 15 years.

Since 2011, when the European Union banned the export of drugs for use in executions, Pennsylvania and other death penalty states have been forced to rely on untested drug combinations and loosely regulated compounding pharmacies, and most have become secretive about the sources and contents of their lethal injection drugs. Death row inmates around the country have sued to block their executions on the grounds that withholding this information is unconstitutional. Untested or poorly prepared drug cocktails could, they argue, create a level of suffering that violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. So far, they've met with little success. Clayton Lockett, who lost his bid to force the state of Oklahoma to reveal the source and purity of the drugs used to put him to death, writhed and moaned in apparent agony after being injected with a secretly acquired drug combinations in April.

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?

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?

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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.

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.