Kevin Drum

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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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?

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.

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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.

I Have Gone Over to the Dark Side

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 2:12 PM EDT

I have gone over to the dark side. I've been on the edge for a while, playing passive-aggressive games with my copy editor, but I guess I might as well just fess up. I now routinely use they and them as gender-neutral singular pronouns.1

I'm not proud of this. But he or she has always grated on the ear. Likewise, using he some of the time and she some of the time is just too damn much work. And it's kind of confusing too. How careful are you going to be to use them equally? How much attention are you going to pay to make sure you aren't using them in gendered ways (he when you're writing about doctors, she when you're writing about nurses)? Etc.

What other options are there? None. You can write around the problem, but that usually produces a mess. There have been a few feeble attempts to invent new pronouns, but they've gone nowhere and never will. So we're stuck. The easiest thing is just to use they and them. Everyone knows what you mean, and except for us grammar pedants, nobody cares. I don't think I have the will to resist anymore. I have been assimilated.

1See the previous post for an example—and for the proximate cause of this post.

Mobile Payments: A Solution Still Searching For a Problem

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 12:30 PM EDT

Lots of people are skeptical of Apple's new mobile payment system. Neil Irwin is one of them:

The core challenge Apple faces is that buying things with a credit card isn’t nearly as onerous a process as they make it out to be.

Mr. Cook showed a video at the product rollout of a woman burrowing in her purse for a credit card, navigating past a box of Tic Tacs — Tic Tacs! — and struggling to open her wallet in order to find her card, then being asked to show her driver’s license before completing the transaction. It had a lot in common, actually, with those infomercials in which actors manage to horribly bungle the most basic tasks until some new product solves a nonproblem.

This strikes me about the same way as those old Visa ads about the horrors of paying for your bottle of spring water with cash. You monster! How dare you impede the march of civilization! But just as cash is, in fact, pretty easy to use, Irwin's core observation is that paying with a credit card is pretty easy too, especially for low-dollar purchases that require only a quick swipe. Using your mobile phone doesn't really provide much of an advantage.

But wait! Maybe credit cards really do pose problems. Because I'm a grumpy old man, I often find myself muttering under my breath at the supermarket checkout line. Why? Because there's someone ahead of me who apparently has never used a credit card before to pay for anything. They wait until the entire purchase is rung up. Then it suddenly occurs to them that they'll be required to offer payment for all this stuff. Then they retrieve their card. Then they stare at the card reader as if it had been designed by Martians. Then they stare at it some more. Then the checker tells them to push the button that says "Approve." Etc.

This is annoying to people like me who are easily annoyed. But here's the problem: will mobile payments make things better? I guess it's possible, but my 30 years of experience with computing devices doesn't make me hopeful. How likely is it that people who still have trouble with card swipers, which have been around for decades, will be seamlessly waving their iPhones around with no problems and no breakdowns? I dunno. Maybe Apple is the company that can finally make it happen. But until I see the real-life evidence, my guess is that it will be about as seamless as trying to teach people how to change the privacy settings on their Facebook account.

There really are issues with credit cards as payment devices. They're fairly easily stolen and they're pretty insecure. Still, these things are relative. As long as you use a credit card instead of a debit card, you're not responsible for most losses, and various forms of modern technology have made credit cards much more secure than in the past. And as Irwin points out, they're pretty easy to use. It's just possible that the Steve Jobs reality distortion field could have convinced everyone otherwise, but I'm not sure Tim Cook is up to the task.

Yet More Data Suggests That Health Care Costs Really Are Slowing Down

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 10:55 AM EDT

Jonathan Cohn points us to the latest Kaiser/HRET survey of employer health plans and passes along some good news:

Its main finding: This year, the average annual price of a single person’s coverage is $6,025 and the average annual price for a family policy is $16,834. (Those are the full prices for coverage, including the portion that employers pay directly.)

That’s a lot of money, obviously. But the cost of the family policy is only 3 percent higher than it was last year, and the cost of the single policy rose by even less....What to think about this? Generally speaking, it’s a positive development when premiums aren’t rising too quickly, since it means that workers have more money in their paychecks.

....Critics of the Affordable Care Act insisted it would cause employers to jack up premiums. There’s no evidence of that happening. And of course this data is consistent with all the other recent data we’ve gotten on health care spending under Obamacare. National health care spending, the amount of money we spend as a country, is rising at historically low rates.

I'd place a fair amount of emphasis on that last point. The chart on the right shows the annual increase in premiums for family coverage since 2000. As you can see, premium increases have been falling pretty steadily during the entire period. In the early aughts, employers were routinely seeing double-digit increases. But in the past few years, that's dropped to around 3-4 percent, which is only slightly higher than the general rate of inflation.

This is all consistent with other data on health care inflation rates, which shows a fluctuating but steady decrease since the early 80s and an even more concrete decrease over the past decade. Obviously this trend has nothing to do with Obamacare, which is benefiting from a bit of a tailwind here.

At the same time, Cohn is right to point out that Obamacare critics all insisted that it would cause premiums to skyrocket. It didn't. Some premiums went up thanks to new minimum requirements for coverage and the start of community rating, which requires insurance companies to cover everyone, even those with preexisting conditions. But that mostly affected the individual market, and even there premium increases have been pretty manageable for the vast majority of people.

How long will this slowdown in health care inflation last? My guess is that it's more or less permanent. It will vary a bit from year to year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it hit 3-4 points above the general inflation rate in some years. But the downward trend has been in place for three decades now, and that's long enough to suggest that it was the double-digit increases of the 80s and early 90s that were the outliers. Aside from those spikes, the current smaller increases are roughly similar to health care spending increases over the past half century.