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How Many US Troops Will Be In Iraq By the Time Obama Leaves Office?

| Tue May 26, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

Over the past few days I've been trying to catch up with the fall of Ramadi and what it means for the war against ISIS. But it's not easy figuring out what really happened.

According to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Ramadi was yet another debacle for the Iraqi military: "What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered; in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves."

The inevitable Kenneth Pollack, however, says that just isn't the case:

I think it important to start by putting the fall of Ramadi in its proper perspective. Da’ish [ISIS] forces have been battling for Ramadi since December 2013, so while the denouement may have come somewhat suddenly and unexpectedly, this is not a new front in the war and it ultimately took Da’ish a very long time to take the city. Although Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) did eventually retreat from the town and abandoned at least some heavy weapons doing so, most reports indicate they fell back to defensive positions outside the town. They did not simply drop their guns and run pell-mell, as many did in June 2014.

So what does Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi think? He's certain that Carter was fed bad information. Iraqi troops, he says, are just fine: "They have the will to fight, but when they are faced with an onslaught by [the Islamic State] from nowhere . . . with armored trucks packed with explosives — the effect of them is like a small nuclear bomb — it gives a very, very bad effect on our forces,” he said.

Contra Pollack, then, Abadi thinks ISIS did indeed come "from nowhere." Also, he wants us to know that his troops have the will to fight, but not when facing an enemy that uses actual weapons. Or something.

Beyond this, all the usual suspects blame the whole thing on President Obama and his usual weak-kneed reluctance to support our friends overseas. Unfortunately, that matters, regardless of whether or not it's just reflexive partisan nonsense. When it's loud enough and persistent enough, it starts to congeal into conventional wisdom. And if conventional wisdom says that things aren't going well in the war against ISIS, then the pressure to do something ratchets up steadily—and not just from the usual suspects. The pressure also comes in more reasonable form from sympathetic critics. For example here, from Doyle McManus of the LA Times, and here, from Pollack himself.

Zack Beauchamp thinks this friendly criticism matters a lot. Here he is responding to Pollack's piece:

First, Pollack is right on certain points. For example, the US campaign to equip some Sunni fighters hasn't panned out very well....Second, critics like Pollack are going to jack up the pressure on the administration to put American troops in harm's way. Pollack wants Obama to put American forces on the front lines to more accurately call in US airstrikes. He blames the administration's insistence "that not a single American be killed in this fight" for why this hasn't happened.

It's true that the administration has strongly resisted putting American troops in combat positions. That's because they're trying very hard to avoid slouching toward another Iraq war, with a large and growing US combat force that very well might do more harm than good. No combat troops is a red line designed to prevent that escalation.

....The foreign policy consensus in Washington is relatively hawkish, so problems with US interventions tend to be seen as problems resulting from not using enough force or committing enough resources. The more the elite consensus shifts against Obama, the more political pressure to escalate will mount. Obama probably will resist it, but the costs of doing so are going up — as Pollack's piece demonstrates.

So now I feel like I've caught up a bit on this. And it hardly matters. It's the same old stuff. On the surface, everyone agrees that this is an Iraqi fight and Iraqis need to fight it. But of course our training of Iraqi troops is woefully inadequate—something that should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers that a decade wasn't long enough to train Iraqi troops back when George Bush was running things. If Obama could make it happen within a few months, he really would be a miracle worker.

But if our training mission isn't working, the alternative is wearily obvious: more American boots on the ground—which is to say, on the front lines. And again, this comes as no surprise. Anyone who was paying attention knew that Obama's lightweight training-first strategy was likely to take years. We also knew that virtually no one in Washington has that kind of patience. Six months is the usual limit. So even among centrists and moderate hawks, pressure is going to grow to adopt a more aggressive strategy. And that means more Americans fighting on the front lines. And when that isn't enough, even more Americans.

Can Obama resist this pressure? If anyone can, it would be him. But I'm not sure that even he can hold out for too long.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham: Iranians in Pool Halls Are All Liars

| Tue May 26, 2015 11:20 AM EDT

Lindsey Graham is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the US Senate. Here he is, slipping into his Mr. Hyde role:

Senator Lindsey Graham, the first speaker Friday morning, appearing from Washington via video, spoke of losing his parents as a teenager, working in a pool hall and having to help raise his younger sister — and how it relates to his leadership style.

"Everything I learned about Iranians I learned working in the pool room," he said. "I met a lot of liars, and I know the Iranians are lying."

Well, there you have it. It's not entirely clear to me how you'd become so adept at spotting liars in an open game like pool, but I guess ol' Lindsey managed it.

In any case, this is certainly the level of nuance and understanding of world affairs that we're getting accustomed to from the Republican presidential field—and it's only May. By the time, say, September rolls around, they're going to be competing with each other the same way they did four years ago over border security. It won't be long before we start hearing about nukes, giant domes, and Iron Curtain 2.0. Should be lotsa fun.

UPDATE: The BBC has corrected its Lindsey quote. He didn't say "I know the Iranians are liars." He said, "I know the Iranians are lying." I've corrected the text.

Hillary Clinton Store Features Pantsuit T-Shirt of Your Nightmares

| Tue May 26, 2015 11:12 AM EDT

Hillary Clinton's campaign store is open for business! The online store, stocked with coffee mugs and items emblazoned with Clinton's official 2016 logo, appears to feature the usual swag expected from a political campaign. But one piece of merchandise stands out. That's the "pantsuit t-shirt," which looks like this:

Love seeing Clinton continue to embrace the pantsuit jokes! But for $30, will supporters put their sartorial reputations on the line by wearing what is essentially an awful tuxedo t-shirt? As for the store's adorable "Future Voter" onesie? Nailed it.

The Freewheeling Fun of Jazz Guitarist Wes Montgomery's Live Concerts

| Mon May 25, 2015 4:40 PM EDT

Wes Montgomery
In the Beginning
Resonance

Near the end of his life, jazz guitar virtuoso Wes Montgomery (1923-1968) caught the ear of pop audiences with a series of records that were slick and sophisticated, but a little dull. This vibrant two-disc set is far more satisfying. Spanning 1949 to 1958, In the Beginning is dominated by live performances from Montgomery's hometown of Indianapolis, in small-group settings that often featured brothers Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano), along with underrated tenor sax player Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson. The recordings aren't perfect technically, and the playing isn't always razor-sharp, but all concerned sound like they're having a great time, especially Wes, who swings and struts with a freewheeling joy missing from his later work. Also included are five polished studio tracks produced by none other than a 22-year-old Quincy Jones, although these pale next to the spontaneous sounds of Wes Montgomery onstage, finding himself and having fun.

Holy Shit! Almonds Require a Ton of Bees

| Mon May 25, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Growing 80 percent of the globe's almonds in California doesn't just require massive amounts of water. It also takes a whole bunch of honeybees for pollination—roughly two hives' worth for every acre of almonds trees, around 1.7 million hives altogether. That's something like 85 percent of all available commercial hives in the United States, Gene Brandi, a California beekeeper who serves as vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, recently told NPR.

Now, that vast army of bees—made up, all told, of more than 80 billion flying, buzzing soldiers—doesn't stay put in California's almond-happy Central Valley all year. The almond bloom typically lasts for just a few weeks (or less) in February. The modern honeybee operation is an itinerant business—beekeepers move hives throughout the year, in pursuit of paid pollination gigs—from tangerines in Florida to cherries in Washington state—as well as good forage for honey.

As US honeybees' health has flagged, California's almond industry has been drawing in a larger and and larger portion of the nation's available bee hives.

But California's almond bloom is the biggest gig of all—the "largest managed pollination event anywhere in the world," Scientific American reports. And as US honeybee populations' health has flagged in recent years—most famously epitomized by the mysterious winter die-offs that began around a decade ago, known as colony collapse disorder—the almond industry has been drawing in a larger and and larger portion of the nation's available bee hives.

One question that arises is: Why do the nation's beekeepers uproot themselves and their winged charges to travel to California each year? The state houses about 500,000 beehives, meaning that more then 1 million come in, from as far away as Maine. What's the incentive?

These days, US beekeepers typically make more money from renting out their bees for pollination than they do from producing honey. "Without pollination income, we'd be out of business," Brandi told me. Income from the two sources varies year to year, but pollination income has grown over the years even as honey revenues have fallen, depressed by competition from imported honey. In 2012, for example, US beekeepers brought in $283 million from honey, versus an estimated $656 million from pollination.

And California's almond growers have to shell out big money to draw in their pollinators—between $165 and $200 per hive, vs $45 to $75 a hive a decade ago, according to the Fresno Bee. That's around $309 million, if we assume as average price of $182 per hive, the midpoint of the Bee's range.

What's the impact on overall honeybee health, which has been under heavy pressure over the past decade? There are two potential downsides.

The first is from pesticides—insect growth regulators and fungicides—bees encounter in their travels around almond groves. During the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15 percent and 25 percent of beehives suffered "severe" damage, ranging from complete hive collapse to dead and deformed brood (the next generation of bees incubating in the hive), the Pollinator Stewardship Council estimated. The die-off caused an uproar, and many beekeepers pointed a finger at pesticides—and they probably had a point, as I showed here.

During the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15 and 25 percent of hives suffered severe damage.

This year, Brandi told me, some beekeepers reported losses, but they weren't nearly as severe or widespread as the ones in 2014. In the wake of the 2014 troubles, the Almond Board of California released a set of "best management practices" for protecting honeybees during the bloom that, Brandi said, may have influenced growers to avoid particularly harmful pesticide applications. Given that almond growers utterly rely on—and indeed, pay heavily for—honeybees for pollinating their crop, it seems logical that they'll avoid poisoning them when possible. There will also be tension, though, as long as almond trees are planted in geographically concentrated and vast groves. Large monocrops provide an ideal habitat for pests like fungi and insects, and thus a strong incentive to respond with chemicals. There's also the possibility that concentrating such a huge portion of the nation's bees in such a tight geographical area facilitates the spread of viruses and other pathogens.

The second threat to bee health from pollinating California's massive almond bloom comes from long-distance travel. This one lies at the heart of the beekeeping industry's itinerant business model. Does it compromise bee health to pack hundreds of hives onto a flatbed truck for cross-country trips? The stresses go well beyond the occasional truck wreck. Scientific American explains the rigors of apiary highway travel like this:

The migration…continually boomerangs honeybees between times of plenty and borderline starvation. Once a particular bloom is over, the bees have nothing to eat, because there is only that one pollen-depleted crop as far as the eye can see. When on the road, bees cannot forage or defecate. And the sugar syrup and pollen patties beekeepers offer as compensation are not nearly as nutritious as pollen and nectar from wild plants. Scientists have a good understanding of the macronutrients in pollen such as protein, fat and carbohydrate, but know very little about its many micronutrients such as vitamins, metals and minerals—so replicating pollen is difficult.

A 2012 paper, coauthored by USDA bee researcher Jeff Pettis, found that long-distance travel may indeed have ill health effects—the researchers found that "bees experiencing transportation have trouble fully developing their food glands and this might affect their ability to nurse the next generation of workers."

Brandi, for his part, dismisses travel as a factor in the overall decline in bee health. "Bees have been traveling back and forth across he country for years," he said—since long before the colony collapse disorder and other health troubles began to emerge a decade ago, he said. He said bee travel has actually gotten less stressful over the years as beekeepers have upgraded to smoother-riding flatbed trucks. He said other factors, including pesticides, declining biodiversity, and mites (a bee pest) are likely more important drivers of declining bee health.

Meanwhile, California almond country's massive appetite for pollination isn't likely to dissipate anytime soon. According to the latest USDA numbers, acreage devoted to almonds expanded by 5 percent in 2014, and growers continue laying in yet more groves this year, Western Farm Press reports. Land devoted to almonds has grown 50 percent since 2005—and every time farmers add another acre of trees, they need access to two additional bee hives for pollination. 

So why don't more beekeepers simply move to California and stay put, to take advantage of the world's biggest—and growing—pollination gig? I put that question to longtime bee expert Eric Mussen of the University of California-Davis. He said the state is already home to 500,000 of the nation's 2.7 million hives. The almond bloom is great for a few weeks, but in terms of year-round foraging, "California is already at or near its carrying capacity for honeybees," he said—the areas with the best-quality forage are already well stocked with bees.So satisfying the world's ever-growing appetite for almonds will continue to require an annual armada of beehive-laden trucks.

Chart: America Is More Liberal Than Politicians Think

| Sun May 24, 2015 11:28 AM EDT

Here's a fascinating tidbit of research. A pair of grad students surveyed 2,000 state legislators and asked them what they thought their constituents believed on several hot button issues. They then compared the results to actual estimates from each district derived from national surveys.

The chart on the right is typical of what they found: Everyone—both liberal and conservative legislators—thought their districts were more conservative than they really were. For example, in districts where 60 percent of the constituents supported universal health care, liberal legislators estimated the number at about 50 percent. Conservative legislators were even further off: They estimated the number at about 35 percent.

Why is this so? The authors don't really try to guess, though they do note that legislators don't seem to learn anything from elections. The original survey had been conducted in August, and a follow-up survey conducted after elections in November produced the same result.

My own guess would be that conservatives and conservatism simply have a higher profile these days. Between Fox News and the rise of the tea party and (in the case of universal health care) the relentless jihad of Washington conservatives, it's only natural to think that America—as well as one's own district—is more conservative than it really is. But that's just a guess. What's yours?

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Michael B. Jordan Just Slammed People Who Can’t Deal With One of the Fantastic 4 Being Black—And It’s Great

| Sat May 23, 2015 8:25 PM EDT

These days, when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, the superheroes that end up saving the day are normally straight, white men—at least on the big screen. 

While Marvel's comics have become increasingly more diverse over the years with a half-black, half-Hispanic Spiderman and a female version of Thor, its cinematic universe remains largely male and whitewashed. This is why the backlash to Michael B. Jordan being cast in the highly-anticipated reboot of Fantastic Fouris so disheartening. When the actor was originally confirmed to play Johnny Storm a.k.a the Human Torch, naysayers took to social media to complain about the black actor would be playing a traditionally white character. (When TMZ asked what he thought of the criticism, Jordan quipped: "They're still going to see [the movie] anyway.")

Attention, trolls and comic book purists: The idea that Jordan shouldn't be Johnny Storm because he's black is misguided, because, you know, comic books are fictional and so are the movies. Anyone can fill these roles and do a great job (see Idris Elba as a Norse god in Thor).

In an essay published Friday in Entertainment Weekly, Jordan slammed  people who are having a hard time accepting that in the new movie only three  of the fantastic four are white.

This is a family movie about four friends—two of whom are myself and Kate Mara as my adopted sister—who are brought together by a series of unfortunate events to create unity and a team. That’s the message of the movie, if people can just allow themselves to see it.

Sometimes you have to be the person who stands up and says, "I’ll be the one to shoulder all this hate. I’ll take the brunt for the next couple of generations." I put that responsibility on myself. People are always going to see each other in terms of race, but maybe in the future we won’t talk about it as much. Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles, and maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that "it has to be true to the comic book." Or maybe we have to reach past them.

To the trolls on the Internet, I want to say: Get your head out of the computer. Go outside and walk around. Look at the people walking next to you. Look at your friends’ friends and who they’re interacting with. And just understand this is the world we live in. It’s okay to like it.

Let's sum up Jordan's smackdown in one line: The Human Torch is whatever Marvel says it is. You can see how Jordan does in theaters on August 7. 

Obama's Plan to Save the Monarch Butterflies' Epic Migration

| Sat May 23, 2015 3:52 PM EDT
A monarch butterfly.

Earlier this week, amid negotiating major trade deals and joining Twitter, Obama put forth a major infrastructure project: a highway for monarch butterflies.

That's right, monarch butterflies. The pollinators are crucial to the health of our ecosystems but, like bees, their populations have seen startling drops. Some groups are even calling for their protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Obama administration wants to do something about it as part of its strategy to protect pollinating insects, but that turns out to be a tricky task given the monarch's complex life cycle.

Each year, millions of monarch butterflies complete a 2,000-mile migration circuit from Mexico to the border of the United States and Canada that is so epic it has inspired poetry, a novel and documentary after documentary.

The whole process revolves around the butterflies' favorite plant, milkweed, on whose leaves they lay eggs. Milkweed grows in the northern United States and southern Canada, so each spring they migrate north from Mexico (a process that requires multiple generations), resting along the way on trees like this.

Monarch butterflies in trees
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Monarch butterflies on branch
Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The generation that arrives up north has just enough energy to lay eggs on milkweed leaves before dying themselves. The new generation, bolstered by the milkweed, then grows up with the strength to make make the autumn trip back to Mexico before the cold, continuing the cycle.

Monarch butterflies
Noradoa/Shutterstock

But a mixture of climate change, development, and herbicide use has wiped out> the milkweed-hungry monarchs. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that nearly one billion butterflies have died since 1990, a 90 percent population decline.

Enter Obama. As part of his "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators," his administration has introduced a plan to restore the monarch butterflies' habitat and increase their population by 225 million. The centerpiece of the plan is a "flyway" along Interstate 35, which stretches from Texas to Minnesota. The plan calls for turning federally owned land along the interstate corridor into milkweed refuges for the butterflies.

Will it work? Many don't think it's enough, including Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The goal the strategy sets for the monarch butterfly migration is far too low for the population to be resilient," she said in an email adding more protection and a ban of harmful pesticides are needed to save them.

One source of hope for the insect is its beauty. No one wants to see these iconic butterflies go away.

monarch butterfly
Jean-Edouard Rozey/Shutterstock
monarch butterfly
Rebecca Blackwell/AP

 

So How Did My Experiment Turn Out?

| Sat May 23, 2015 1:42 PM EDT

On Monday I announced that this was Experiment Week. Today is Saturday, and Science™ has spoken.

It turns out that I'm kinda sorta OK for about four or five hours in the morning. As long as I rest every hour or so, I can indeed write a couple of light blog posts, take a walk around the block, and shower and shave. That's the good news.

However, the deadline for my second walk of the day is about 2 pm. On Monday I walked at 5 pm, and when I was done I felt like I'd just run a marathon. It took me all evening to recover. On Tuesday I walked at 4 pm. This time it felt like I'd run a mile, and I recovered in about an hour. Basically, I've learned that my body wants to crash at about 2 pm every day. Maybe I doze for a couple of hours, maybe I actually sleep a bit, but either way I'm good for nothing. By 5 pm I'm back up, but all my chemo side effects have started to get worse. The neuropathy is worse, the nausea is worse, and the fatigue is worse. This continues until bedtime, getting steadily worse the entire time.

So that's that. I have the energy for light activity from about 7 am to 2 pm. Then I collapse, and when I get up I spend the next five or six hours enduring crappy side effects of the chemo. Oh, and this includes a terrible taste in my mouth that never goes away. Ugh.

But it could be worse! In fact, it's been worse before. Still, it's frustrating that recovery seems to come so slowly. I don't know if I'll be spending another week like this or another couple of months. All I can do is wait and see.

Ireland Is Latest Country to Approve Gay Marriage

| Sat May 23, 2015 11:38 AM EDT

I don't have anything profound to say about this, but it's just a nice piece of good news. And I could use some good news these days:

Irish voters have resoundingly backed amending the constitution to legalize gay marriage, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday after the world’s first national vote on the issue.

As the official ballot counting continued, the only question appeared to be how large the “yes” margin of victory from Friday’s vote would be. Analysts said the “yes” support was likely to exceed 60 percent nationally when official results are announced later Saturday.

Congratulations to Ireland. This is both a human and humane gesture in a world that could use more of them.