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The Arab World's Version of the Ice Bucket Challenge: Burning ISIS Flags

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

On Saturday, three Lebanese young men in Beirut protested the Islamic State by burning the extremist group's flag, a black banner emblazoned with the Muslim tenet "there is no god but God and Muhammed is his prophet." The teens then posted a video of the flag-burning online, exhorting others to do the same to demonstrate their opposition to the movement led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In recent weeks, the Islamic State has allegedly beheaded a Lebanese army sergeant and kidnapped about 20 Lebanese soldiers. The flag-burning campaign, modeled on the viral "Ice Bucket Challenge," quickly took off on social media under the hashtag #BurnISISFlagChallenge. "I nominate the whole world to #Burn_ISIS_Flag_Challenge. You have 24 hours. GO!!" wrote one Lebanese YouTube user.

Though the campaign hasn't spread throughout the world yet, it has received considerable attention in Lebanon, where many citizens have rallied behind the cause. But some Lebanese officials are not happy about the protest. Lebanese Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi has called for the "sternest punishment" for the flag burners for their "insult" to the Islamic religion and its symbols. He contends the flag is a religious relic, not a symbol of the Islamic State. And he claimed the flag-burning could "stir up sectarian conflicts" and, consequently, was illegal under Lebanese law, according to newspaper Asharq al-Aswat.

Nabil Naqoula, a member of Lebanon's Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, took issue with Rifi and maintained that the protesters who started the movement did not intend "to insult the Islamic religion." Ibrahim Kanaan, a member of the same group, offered legal support to the three young men who launched the flag-burning frenzy if they are charged with a crime.

The Islamic State's flag has flown everywhere from a Chicago motorists' window last Wednesday as he made bomb threats against the police, to the streets of Tabqa in northeast Syria where the extremist group seized a military airbase. The black banner has become synonymous with the group's radical violence and mercilessness. 

Here are a few examples of Lebanese activists taking the flag-burning challenge:

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Needed: A New Marketing Strategy For Defending the Indefensible

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 11:29 AM EDT

Richard Fink, the Koch brothers' top political strategist, explained recently why they're having trouble reaching the "middle third" of the country that's relatively non-ideological:

Yeah, we want to decrease regulations. Why? It’s because we can make more profit, OK? Yeah, cut government spending so we don’t have to pay so much taxes,” said Fink. “There’s truth in that....But the middle part of the country doesn’t see it that way.”

“When we focus on decreasing government spending, over-criminalization, decreasing taxes, it doesn’t do it, OK? We’ve been reaching the [middle] third by telling them what’s important — what we think is important should be important to them. And they’re not responding and don’t like it, OK? Well, we get business — what do we do? We want to find out what the customer wants, right, not what we want them to buy,” he said.

Imagine that. When the middle third of the country hears the message that regulations should be cut back so that corporations can make more money, it doesn't respond well. So what's the answer? Find out what they do respond to and use that as an excuse for less regulation instead. Ixnay on the ofitpray!

As Fink says, this is pretty ordinary marketing. Still, it'll be interesting to see what they come up with. Obviously the Kochians feel like they need a new set of selling points for reduced corporate regulation, and it needs to be something that Joe and Jane Sixpack can identify with. I wonder what it's going to be?

Knock Knock. "Who's There?" "Donald Trump."

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 11:05 AM EDT

(Knock knock)

"Who's there?"

"Donald."

"Donald who?"

"Donald Trump."

(Deadbolts door)

"Honey! Quick, hide the kids! An anti-vaccine lunatic is here!"

"Oh Jesus!"

"Hurry! Take them into the basement."

"Aren't you coming?"

"I have to make sure you're safe."

"No, please! Come with us!"

"Mommy!"

"This is my responsibility. I am your wife. I am their mother...Please, I love you. What type of mother would I be if I let some anti-vax nut near our kids?"

"I love you so much."

"I love you so much. Go, please."

(Husband and kids begin down stairs to basement, wife prepares to close basement door, husband looks up at her one last time)

"I'll pray for you."

"Pray for all of us."

(Wife closes door, returns to entry hall, Donald is still knocking)

"Hello? You there? This is no way to treat Donald Trump! This is a lot like the time Dennis Rodman was on my hit show. He came into the boardroom and I said—."

"Please, just go away."

(Beat)

"I have no where else to go."

(Beat)

(Wife opens door)

"Come in. We'll watch one episode. Just until the doctors arrive to take you back to the hospital."

"Want to see pictures of my resorts?"

"Sure, grandpa. Sure."

The end.

Temper Tantrums in the Air May Be Good For All Of Us

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 10:37 AM EDT

Three times makes it a trend!

Amy Fine wanted to nap on Delta flight 2370, from New York to Palm Beach, Fla., so she laid her head on the tray table. The passenger in front of her wanted to relax with some knitting. She reclined her seat — smacking Fine's head and sparking an emotional explosion.

The resulting screaming match caused an unscheduled landing in Jacksonville, Fla., the third diversion in nine days caused by passenger fights over shrinking legroom.

My position is that the passengers getting into these fights are doing us all a favor. If this happens a few more times, nobody will ever recline their seat again for fear of causing a flight-diverting temper tantrum. Fear can be a wonderful motivator sometimes.

Of course, there are dynamic effects to be worried about here. If this continues, perhaps airlines will start disabling the recline mechanisms in their seats once and for all. Just not worth the trouble. And once they've done that, some bright spark will figure out that they can reduce legroom even more. And then we'll all be worse off than before. No one will be able to recline and everybody will have their knees jammed into the seat in front of them. Something to look forward to.

From the Annals of Unexpected Headlines

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 10:13 AM EDT

I would just like to say that this is not a headline I ever expected to see during my scan of the morning newspaper. That is all.

Häagen-Dazs Says It Won't Use Fake DNA in Ice Cream

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Vanilla beans, or "natural flavoring solution"?

The Swiss firm Evolva is on the verge of bringing a novel vanilla-flavoring ingredient into the world: one neither grown on a tropical tree nor synthesized from petroleum. Evolva's version of vanillin—the most important of the many compounds that give vanilla beans their famous flavor and aroma—will be grown in yeast engineered through a process know as synthetic biology. (See my recent pieces on synbio here and here).

Will the market embrace this innovation? Is your ice cream, as the headline to one of my pieces recently had it, about to get weirder?

It's still way too early to tell, but one iconic ice cream brand, Häagen-Dazs, says it's taking a pass. Contacted by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, both Nestle, which markets Häagen-Dazs in the US, and General Mills, which does so in all other markets, affirmed that the brand "will not source vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Evolva downplayed the importance of Häagen-Dazs' no-synbio stand:

Regarding this recent press release by Friends of the Earth (FOE) related to vanillin, Evolva would like to reiterate that its vanillin is not intended to replace vanilla that is grown in Madagascar, Mexico or elsewhere. Madagascan vanilla is a great product. And if ice cream makers are currently using this vanilla, by all means they should keep using it. Our focus is the 99% of vanillin (NOT VANILLA) in the world that actually does not come from the orchid in Madagascar, etc., but rather from petrochemical plants or chemically treated paper pulp waste. We want to give people a better alternative to THAT vanillin. Further, as has been stated previously, our vanillin has been reviewed for safety and has been found to be safe for its intended use. FOE is fully aware of our approach because we have shared it with them several times, already.

But Evolva appears to be engaging in a bit of hairsplitting here. In its own press release, it trumpets its product as "natural vanillin for commercial application," produced "through a cost-effective, natural and sustainable route." And in a recent statement to the trade website Food Navigator, Evolva reiterated the "natural" claim: "For most markets, our vanillin can be labeled as a natural flavor as part of a natural flavoring solution."

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Think the Southwest’s Drought Is Bad Now? It Could Last a Generation or More

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 5:55 AM EDT
Irrigation pipes on Southern California farmland.

Late-summer 2014 has brought uncomfortable news for residents of the US Southwest—and I'm not talking about 109-degree heat in population centers like Phoenix.

A new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey researchers looked at the deep historical record (tree rings, etc.) and the latest climate change models to estimate the likelihood of major droughts in the Southwest over the next century. The results are as soothing as a thick wool sweater on a midsummer desert hike. 

The researchers concluded that odds of a decadelong drought are "at least 80 percent." The chances of a "megadrought," one lasting 35 or more years, stands at somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent, depending on how severe climate change turns out to be. And the prospects for an "unprecedented 50-year megadrought"—one "worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years"­—checks in at a nontrivial 5 to 10 percent.

To the right there's a map, pulled from the study, showing that the swath of land in question and its risk of a 35-year drought. It extends from Southern California clear to West Texas, encompassing population centers like San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque, along with a large chunk of the troubled US-Mexico border. (Note that in northern Mexico, drought prospects are even higher.)

This (paradoxically) chilling assessment comes on the heels of another study (study; my summary), this one released in early August by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers, on the Colorado River, the lifeblood of a vast chunk of the Southwest. As many as 40 million people rely on the Colorado for drinking water, including residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. It also irrigates the highly productive winter farms of California's Imperial Valley and Arizona's Yuma County, which produce upwards of 80 percent of the nation's winter vegetables.

The researchers analyzed satellite measurements of the Earth's mass and found that the region's aquifers had undergone a much-larger-than-expected drawdown over the past decade—the region's farms and municipalities responded to drought-reduced flows from the Colorado River by dropping wells and tapping almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water between December 2004 and November 2013—equal to about 1.5 full Lake Meads drained off in just nine years, a rate the study's lead researcher, Jay Famiglietti, calls "alarming."

Considering how much of the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses swaths of Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, are desert, it's probably not wise to rapidly drain aquifers, since there's little prospect that they'll refill anytime soon. And when you consider that that the region faces high odds of a coming megadrought, the results are even more frightening. (Just before Labor Day, over fierce opposition from farm interests, the California Legislature passed legislation that would regulate groundwater pumping—something that has never been done on a statewide basis in California before. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it into law.)

Yet another study, this one released in mid-August by researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the US Geological Survey and covered by my colleague Julia Lurie here, found that the drought now gripping most of California has been so severe that it has caused the state's mountain ranges to rise by as much as a half inch since 2013 alone. That's because water, in the form of snow on mountain peaks and flow in streams, weighs down on the tectonic plate upon which the mountains rest. When it's not replaced, as happens during a drought, the plate rises "like an uncoiled spring," as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography put it in a press release. Scripps added, thankfully, that the "uplift has virtually no effect on the San Andreas fault and therefore does not increase the risk of earthquakes." Whew.

But the "uplift effect" doesn't just happen in mountain areas. The researchers estimate that across the West, loss of surface water has caused the land to rise 0.15 of an inch since 2013. Such a tangible change over so short a time illustrates the "the dire hydrological state of the West," the Scripps press release states.

Powerful Reporting From Steven Sotloff, the Second Journalist ISIS Executed

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 6:27 PM EDT

Steven Sotloff (center with black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on the Al Dafniya front line near in Misrata, Libya in 2011.

A video released today appeared to confirm the worst fears for the fate of captured American journalist Steven Sotloff: a beheading at the hands of Islamic State extremists. The video's authenticity has not yet been confirmed by US officials, but the New York Times reports that Sotloff's family believes he has been killed. If so, that means the 31-year-old Sotloff—who went missing a year ago while reporting in Syria—becomes the second American journalist executed by the Islamic State.

Last month, a video surfaced showing ISIS fighters executing American journalist James Foley. Many on the Internet seethed that the gruesome circumstances of his death appeared to overshadow his important work. The same shouldn't happen to Sotloff. Ignore the sensational headlines and instead explore some of the brave, intelligent journalism he devoted his life to producing:

"Syrian Purgatory": In this 2013 piece for Foreign Policy, Sotloff traveled to a Syrian refugee camp to report on the hundreds of thousands displaced by the civil war there. His chilling opening sets the tone for a story about the plight of refugees and the pitfalls of humanitarian aid: "It was less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winter wind cut to the bone. When I asked why she didn't have a blanket like everyone else at the Atmeh refugee camp, [Um Ibrahim] shrugged and looked down. 'I sold it to buy bread for my children.'"

"From Bread Lines to Front Lines:" Again in Foreign Policy, Sotloff went to Aleppo—one of the most devastated cities in Syria—to show how traumatic the daily lives of ordinary Syrians had become by late 2012. "The 21-month long Syrian revolution is taking its toll on residents of the country’s largest city," he wrote. "With everything from medicine to firewood in scarce supply, and with winter bringing temperatures down to near freezing, people here are struggling to cope with a war they just hope will end."

"The Other 9/11: Libyan Guards Recount What Happened in Benghazi:" For this TIME article, Sotloff—who covered Libya extensively for the magazine—interviewed Libyan security guards present when the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked. The result is a vivid, meticulous timeline of the events of September 11, 2012. One example: "Abdullah ran towards the cantina east of C villa where a grenade exploded nearby. 'I remember the shrapnel that landed in my leg was very hot and I was shaken, a bit dizzy,' he recalled. A group of attackers then passed him on the way to encircling the cantina. They shot him twice in the leg. Others beat him so hard he lost consciousness."

"Libya's New Crisis: A Wave of Assassinations Targeting Its Top Cops:" Here, Sotloff reported on the deadly aftershocks of the Benghazi attacks. In explaining the rash of killings of major Libyan security officials, Sotloff paints a compelling picture of the deterioration of post-Qaddafi Libya. "But the biggest loser today is a Libyan state stumbling from one crisis to the next," he writes. "The government has not investigated the bombings and no one has been prosecuted."

"The Alawite Towns That Support Syria's Assad—in Turkey:" TIME featured some of Sotloff's early reporting on the war in Syria. In 2012, he traveled to Turkey to report on Turkish Alawites' support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In doing so, he put himself in the thick of anti-American protests. "When an American journalist stops to ask about the group's activities, though, a burly man in his 30s hisses him away, shouting, "America is funding terrorists in Syria!'"

Republicans Mysteriously Decide to Become Hawkish Again

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 5:08 PM EDT

Apparently the kinder, gentler version of the Republican Party is quickly disappearing:

Remember when the Republican Party was quickly shifting toward a new brand of Rand Paul-esque foreign policy non-interventionism?

No more.

Less than a year ago, just 18 percent of GOPers said that the United States does “too little” when it comes to helping solve the world’s problems, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Today, that number has more than doubled, to 46 percent.

....The results echo a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll which showed higher GOP support for airstrikes in Iraq.

So what to account for the shift?

Hmmm. That's a poser, isn't it? What, oh what, could account for the shift?

Well, let's cast our minds back a year or two. We were fighting in Libya, a war that President Obama got us involved in. We were fighting in Afghanistan, a war that Obama ramped up as soon as he took office. We were fighting drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, all thanks to Obama.

Then what happened? The civil war in Syria heated up, but after a brief bout of indecision Obama decided not to get deeply involved. Russia ramped up military action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and Obama decided not to get deeply involved. ISIS took over a huge chunk of Iraq, and Obama decided not to get deeply involved.

So let's review. A year or two ago, we were involved in three overseas wars, all of them supported by Obama. At the time, Republicans were unaccountably dovish about military interventions. Today, Obama is refraining from getting deeply involved in three overseas wars. And guess what? Republicans have suddenly become hawkish again.

Yep, this is a poser. What could possibly account for this change in Republican attitudes?

ISIS Is a Problem That Only Iraqis Can Solve

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 2:24 PM EDT

Christopher Paul and Colin Clarke studied 71 insurgencies during the post-WWII period and concluded that every successful counterinsurgency has shared several characteristics. They apply the results of their research to the problem of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq:

First, we found that in every case where they succeeded, counterinsurgent forces managed to substantially overmatch the insurgents and force them to fight as guerrillas before getting down to the activities traditionally associated with counterinsurgency....U.S. air power could make a significant contribution toward that end. Airstrikes will help curb Islamic State advances in strategically important parts of Iraq and thus, help bolster the Iraqi government and security forces, at least in the short term.

Second, we concluded from the research that “effective COIN practices tend to run in packs”....Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) techniques identified three COIN concepts critical to success. These three concepts were implemented in each and every COIN win, and no COIN loss implemented all three: Tangible support reduction; commitment and motivation; and flexibility and adaptability.

....U.S. support to an Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the Islamic State must focus on reducing tangible support to the insurgents, increasing the commitment and motivation of the Iraqi military and security forces and increasing the government’s legitimacy among Iraqi Sunnis.

It's been a long time since I spent much time reading about COIN and COIN strategies, but this basically sounds right to me. And it should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who thinks the US should get deeply involved in fighting ISIS.

Here's why. One of the key factors that I remember identifying during the height of the Iraq insurgency was local commitment. In a nutshell, it turns out that virtually no postwar COIN effort led by a big Western country has been successful. Western help is OK, but the COIN effort has to be led by the local regime. It's not a sufficient condition for success, but it's a necessary one.

Paul and Clarke are basically confirming this. Sure, American air strikes might help in terms of the sheer firepower needed to successfully fight ISIS. But of the other three key COIN practices, two are purely local and the third is mostly local. There's very little the United States can do to help out on these fronts. Only the Iraqi government can increase its legitimacy among the Sunni minority, and only the Iraqi government can properly motivate its military. (The US can provide training and materiel, but it can't provide commitment and motivation.) Even the problem of reducing tangible support for the ISIS insurgents is mostly something only the Iraqi government can do. The US can help, but only if Iraqis are leading the way.

At the moment, there's little evidence that the Iraqi government is capable of doing any of these three things. The new government of Haider Al-Abadi might be able to make progress on these fronts, but it hasn't demonstrated that yet. Until it does, more US help is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Instinctive hawks should think long and hard about this. The record of the United States in counterinsurgencies is dismal. If the conditions are just right, we might be able to do some good in Iraq. At the moment, though, the conditions are appalling. We can put a few fingers in some dikes, but unless and until the Iraqi government steps up to the plate, there's virtually no chance that deeper US involvement will turn out well.