Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: What ISIS Really Wants

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 10:30 AM EST

From Graeme Wood's 10,000-word exegesis in the Atlantic on the origins and true beliefs of ISIS:

Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

A friend recommended I read this, so I plowed through it yesterday afternoon. Here's the main takeaway:

Much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse....They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Wood says that we benefit in two ways from ISIS holding such sincerely medieval and millenarian views. The first is obvious: it severely limits their potential audience for converts. The second benefit is more recondite: one of those medieval views is that the Koran demands the establishment of a new caliphate. And this is not some wimpy, aspirational caliphate that exists only in the indefinite future. That's for milksops like Al-Qaeda. This is a right-here-and-now caliphate. But it turns out that a caliphate requires control over actual physical territory:

Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.

This means, for starters, that ISIS is not a big threat to the United States. Unlike Al-Qaeda, it has no particular interest in attacking the West. Its goal—in fact, its religious duty—is to establish control over territory in the Middle East. And that also represents a major weakness:

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

The whole piece is worth a read.

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Most Americans Think the Netanyahu Speech Is a Bad Idea

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 10:53 PM EST

According to a new CNN poll, 63 percent of Americans think it was a bad idea for Republicans to invite Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without first consulting the White House. Even Republicans are only barely on board. That's no surprise, really: it was just a dumb idea on everyone's part. The only thing that took me a little aback was adding up the numbers and learning that fully 96 percent of Americans have an opinion on this matter in the first place. That seems unlikely. But another question in the CNN poll did surprise me:

Americans overall believe the U.S. should stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with 66% in the new poll advocating the U.S. remain neutral. Of those who do support picking a side, the majority, 29%, back Israel, while only 2% support Palestine.

Even Republicans, typically seen as the party offering the strongest defense of Israel, are split on whether the U.S. should officially support Israel in the conflict. Forty-nine percent support backing the nation, while 47% say the U.S. should stay out of it.

Have I just not been paying attention? I certainly understand why someone might have given up entirely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decided it's best for us to just stay out of it, but I'm startled that this has become such a widely held view. Have previous polls showed the same thing? Or is this something that's just developed over the past few years?

Two Paragraphs That Explain Greece vs. Germany

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 6:09 PM EST

Neil Irwin has a very short and sweet explanation of Europe's continuing fiscal woes:

Europe really does have a big and plausibly unsolvable macroeconomic problem. Germany and a couple of other countries are operating in a radically different economic gear than Southern Europe, and the ways you might normally expect those imbalances to work themselves out are not available. In pre-euro Europe, currency swings would have handled the job. In the United States, continuing fiscal transfers from rich states to poor states do the work. Neither is a palatable option in a Europe that has a single currency and deep aversion among Germans, Finns and Dutch to sending their hard-earned euros to Greece and Spain and Italy.

Either Northern European governments will accept bigger fiscal transfers and higher inflation than their citizens want, or the Mediterranean nations with economic challenges will have to accept falling wages and high unemployment as they try to restore competitiveness, which their citizens very much do not want.

Germany is the most inflation-averse of the big Northern European countries, and Greece is suffering the worst unemployment among the Southern European countries. This is why Greece vs. Germany has become the main front in the ongoing economic trench warfare of North vs. South.

As for myself, I can't bring myself to believe that the euro will break up. But I also find it hard to imagine that Greece can avoid open rebellion much longer if Germany continues to maintain policies that make economic balance nearly impossible. So I don't know. What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

Since 9/11, We've Had 4 Wars in the Middle East. They've All Been Disasters.

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 4:40 PM EST

So here's my scorecard for American military interventions since 2000:

  • Afghanistan: A disaster. It's arguable that Afghanistan is no worse off than it was in 2001, but after losing thousands of American lives and spending a trillion American dollars, it's no better off either.
  • Iraq: An even bigger disaster. Saddam Hussein was a uniquely vicious dictator, but even at that there's not much question that Iraq is worse off than it was in 2003. We got rid of Saddam, but got a dysfunctional sectarian government and ISIS in return.
  • Libya: Another disaster. We got rid of Muammar Qaddafi, but got a Somalia-level failed state in return.
  • Yemen: Yet another disaster. After years of drone warfare, Houthi rebels have taken over the government. This appears to be simultaneously a win for Iran, which backs the rebels, and al-Qaeda, which may benefit from the resulting chaos. That's quite a twofer.

Blame all this on whoever you want. George Bush for starting two wars with no real plan to prosecute either one properly. Or Barack Obama for withdrawing from Iraq too soon and failing to have any kind of postwar plan for Libya. Whatever. The question for hawks at this point is: what makes you think American military force has even the slightest chance of improving things in the Middle East? It's been nothing but disasters since 9/11, and there's no reason at all to think we've learned how to do things better in the intervening years. Bush started big wars, and Obama has started small ones, but the result has been the same.

I know, I know. If you're a liberal, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. If you're a conservative, I'm being dangerously simplistic. But tell me: From the viewpoint of military action in the Middle East, what have we gotten better at over the past 14 years? What reason is there to believe that ever more military action will work out any better than it has before? In the past 50 years, has there been any case of the U.S. successfully training local troops to prosecute a war against insurgents?

Feel free to explain in comments.

Is Greece Blinking First?

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 3:56 PM EST

Hum de hum. An unnamed source says Greece is changing its tune about demanding a new deal to replace its existing rescue package:

Greece will seek an extension to its rescue deal from the rest of the eurozone Wednesday, an official with knowledge of the situation said....Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said he expects an agreement between Greece and the eurozone over an extension. “It is my considered opinion that there is going to be a text that everyone is going to be happy with,” Mr. Varoufakis said in a brief telephone interview, despite talks in recent days with his eurozone counterparts that he described as “boisterous.”

But there's also this:

The comments came shortly after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gave a defiant speech in Parliament in Athens, saying his government would move to immediately dismantle overhauls mandated by its bailout program....“We are not taking even one step back from our basic promises to the Greek people, not one step back from our pre-election promises,” Mr. Tsipras said.

So it's more good-cop-bad-cop. But if this report is true, it looks like it's Greece that's blinking first. Why? Probably because—to Greece's surprise—the Germans seem all too sincere about letting Greece default and exit the euro if they refuse to continue down the austerity path they're currently on. If this is really the state of play, then Greece will get a few minor concessions that Tsipras can spin as a victory for domestic consumption, but not much more.

No, a DHS Shutdown Probably Won't Hurt Republicans Much

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 2:39 PM EST

Republicans are threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security over their opposition to any funding bill that doesn't halt President Obama's immigration actions, and today Ed Kilgore notes a new poll today that says a majority of the public will indeed blame Republicans if this happens. Only 30 percent will blame Obama:

That 30% probably blames Obama for bad winter weather, so he's on relatively safe ground here. As for Republicans, some don't give a damn about public opinion (outside their bright-red districts, at least), some have convinced themselves that shutting down the whole damn government worked out all right for them just over a year ago, and some are simply prisoners of their own rhetoric and prejudices. In any event, adverse polling data alone won't pull them back from the brink.

This is basically just an excuse to mention something that surprisingly few people acknowledge: shutting down the government in 2013 did work out all right for Republicans. The punditocracy seems almost unanimously convinced that it seriously hurt them, and it's true that the GOP leadership wants to avoid a replay. But aside from a brief dip in the polls, the GOP escaped almost entirely unharmed. As soon as the shutdown was over, media attention shifted instantly to the Obamacare meltdown that was then in progress.

In fact, a year after the shutdown, Republicans won the 2014 election in a landslide. Does anyone think they would have done even better if they hadn't shut down the government? Anyone?

This isn't to say that Republicans aren't playing with fire here. Shutting down DHS has really bad optics, and presidents have ways of making shutdowns look even worse than they are. Republicans will complain that Obama is playing politics, and they'll probably be right, but their griping will fall on deaf ears. What's more, as time wears on the crazytown wing of the Republican Party will start saying some seriously embarrassing things. They always do. In the end, then, some kind of face-saving compromise will probably be reached that funds DHS and makes little more than a token concession on immigration.

In other words, the shutdown probably won't do Republicans any good—though it's always helpful to keep the base energized. But I frankly doubt that it will do them much harm either.

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Income Inequality Is Temporarily Down, But Hardly Out

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 2:09 PM EST

Has income inequality increased under President Obama? David Leonhardt says no, and provides two reasons.

The first reason is fairly uninteresting: the rich suffered huge losses during the Great Collapse of 2008. So even though they've gobbled up nearly all of the earning gains since then, they still haven't gotten back to their 2007 income levels.

This is uninteresting because it's only temporarily true. Given current trends, the rich will regain all their losses within another year or two, and probably surpass them. Incomes of the rich have always been volatile, but the broad trend of the past few decades is pretty clear: they invariably make up the losses they incur during recessions and then soar to new heights. This is almost certain to happen again as the recovery strengthens.

Leonhardt's second reason, however, is more interesting: government policy under Obama has increased the earnings of the poor and the middle class. Leonhardt cites a recent study from Stephen Rose of George Washington University:

The existing safety net of jobless benefits, food stamps and the like cushioned the blow of the so-called Great Recession. So did the stimulus bill that President Obama signed in 2009 and some smaller bills passed afterward. “Not only were low-income people protected — middle-income and some higher income-households had much lower losses because of these public policies,” Mr. Rose said. “For those who think government programs never work, maybe they need to think again.”

....Pretax income for the middle class and poor dropped substantially from 2007 to 2011 — about 10 percent for most groups. Yet including taxes and transfers, incomes fared better: Average income for the bottom fifth of earners rose 2.6 percent, to $24,100, and the average for the middle fifth fell only 2 percent, to $59,000. Such stagnation is hardly good news, but it’s a lot better than a large decline.

We can add Obamacare to that list too. It effectively increased the earnings of millions of low-income workers. And retaining the pre-Bush top marginal tax rates in the fiscal cliff deal of 2012 decreased the post-tax earnings of the rich slightly.

None of this is massive. The rich will make up their losses, safety net programs are already receding as the economy recovers, and middle-class wages continue to be pretty stagnant. The growth of income inequality may have taken a brief hiatus when the economy crashed, but it's almost certain to return, bigger and badder than ever. As Leonhardt concludes:

Mr. Rose himself, who’s more optimistic about the state of the middle class than I am, says, the United States has “a real income-inequality problem.”

But the fact that inequality hasn’t continued rising in the last several years matters — first, because facts matter, and, second, because it helps show what Washington has the potential to do. For much of the last few decades, rather than attacking inequality, government policy has exacerbated it. Tax rates on the very rich, the same group receiving the largest pretax raises, have fallen the most.

In the last several years, however, the federal government has tried to combat inequality, through a combination of tax and spending policies. These efforts weren’t aggressive enough to bring major raises to most families. The financial crisis was too big, and Washington’s response was too restrained. Yet the efforts were aggressive enough to make a difference.

They are a reminder that rising inequality is not inevitable, and that the country has the power to shape its economy.

This is true. Unfortunately, Obama's efforts to modestly address income inequality were nearly all completed during his first year in office, when he had big Democratic majorities in Congress. Since then, almost nothing has happened, and that's the way things are likely to stay as long as Republicans remain resolutely opposed to anything that concretely helps either the poor or the middle class.

Forget Bribery and Blackmail, Job Offers Are the Real Corruption in Politics

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 12:29 PM EST

This will obviously not come as a shock to anyone, but Suzanne Dovi, a public policy professor at the University of Arizona, puts together a few interesting factlets about government corruption in an op-ed today:

Political scientist Adolfo Santos has found that public officials who have plans to become lobbyists act differently while in office from their colleagues who don't. Interestingly, they are more successful at passing the bills they introduce than officials who don't go on to be lobbyists. Does this behavior reflect their desire to please their potential future employer or something else? We can't tell. What we do know is that public officials who are no longer thinking about reelection are freed from the sanctioning power of constituents.

....One report found that congressional members, on average, get a 1,452% raise when they become lobbyists....Interestingly, according to one study, former staff members can generate more revenue (and earn higher salaries) than former members of Congress.

Dovi recommends that we increase the mandatory waiting period before government officials and staffers can become lobbyists. Instead of being required to wait two years after they leave their jobs, she suggests six. "A six-year wait would significantly weaken their connections and diminish their earning power as lobbyists. And that would reduce the temptation to treat public service as a trial job period, acting on behalf of a future boss rather than the constituents."

This, of course, is why it will never happen. But it's probably not a bad idea.

A Judge Just Blocked Obama's Immigration Plans. Here's Why You Shouldn't Take His Ruling Seriously.

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 12:02 PM EST

A federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, has issued an injunction against President Obama's recent immigration actions. I don't take this even slightly seriously. To see why, all you have to do is read to the end of the New York Times account:

Judge Hanen, who was appointed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, has excoriated the Obama administration’s immigration policies in several unusually outspoken rulings....At a hearing on Jan. 15, Judge Hanen said Brownsville, which sits on the border with Mexico, was an appropriate venue for the suit because its residents see the impact of immigration every day. “Talking to anyone in Brownsville about immigration is like talking to Noah about the flood,” Judge Hanen said.

In a long and colorful opinion last August, Judge Hanen departed from the issue at hand to accuse the Obama administration of adopting a deportation policy that “endangers America” and was “an open invitation to the most dangerous criminals in society.”

The case involved a Salvadoran immigrant with a long criminal record whom Judge Hanen had earlier sent to prison for five years. Instead of deporting the man after he served his sentence, an immigration judge in Los Angeles ordered him released, a decision Judge Hanen found “incredible.” Citing no specific evidence, he surmised that the administration had adopted a broader policy of releasing such criminals.

While acknowledging that he had no jurisdiction to alter policy, Judge Hanen said he relied on his “firsthand, in-the-trenches knowledge of the border situation” and “at least a measurable level of common sense” to reach his conclusions about the case.

Judge Andrew Hanen so obviously hates both Obama and his immigration actions that no one is going to take his decision seriously. It's a polemic, not a proper court ruling. The case will continue its dreary way through Hanen's docket, but I imagine an appeals court will stay the injunction pretty quickly, and then overrule his inevitable final ruling in short order. The right-wing plaintiffs in this case may have thought they were being clever in venue shopping to get the case before Hanen, but it won't do them any good. It might even backfire, given just how transparently political Hanen's ruling is.

This story makes for a good headline, but it probably means little in real life. At most we'll have a delay of a few weeks in implementing Obama's immigration orders.

Anti-Semitic Violence Has Very Different Roots in the U.S. and Europe

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 7:12 PM EST

In a recently updated post over at Vox, Zack Beauchamp has a longish write-up about the disturbing recent rise of anti-Semitic violence. But there's an interesting thing about it.

First off, here's the rate of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., as tallied by the Anti-Defamation League. What you see is a peak in the early 90s and a decline ever since. This is exactly the same thing that you see in rates of violent crime in general. In other words, as violent crime fell, violent crime directed at Jews also fell. This makes sense.

But the global picture is quite different. Partly this is probably due to the fact that the worldwide numbers come from a different source (the Kantor Center in Tel Aviv) and are tallied up using a different methodology. But I doubt that accounts for the stark contrast: worldwide, anti-Semitic attacks have been on a straight upward path ever since the late 90s. This is despite the fact that violent crime in Europe, which accounts for most of the incidents, has followed a trajectory pretty similar to the U.S. The exact dates when violent crime peaked and then started to fall are a little different in different countries, but not by a lot.

The Kantor data also shows that anti-Semitic violence in Canada tripled in the past decade. This is especially unusual. Canada is culturally more similar to the U.S. than Europe is, and the rise and fall of violent crime in Canada has been nearly identical to that in the U.S.

The conventional conclusion from this is, first of all, that anti-Semitic violence in Europe is triggered by events: Israeli incursions into Gaza, the various intifadas, copycat attacks, etc. So you see peaks that correspond to these events, which drives up the trend numbers as triggering events increase. Beyond that, there's a broad increase in attacks that's most likely related to the influence of far-right parties in European countries. The U.S. is different because it has no equivalent far-right parties of any strength, and because, apparently, American anti-Semites aren't especially motivated by specific events. We just have a subset of violent criminals who decide to take out their anger on Jews, and do so fairly randomly.

As for Canada, I don't even have a guess. I would expect their trend rate to be similar to the U.S., but it's clearly not.

I don't have a sharp point to make about this. I just thought the stark difference between the U.S. and Europe was interesting, as was the fact that the U.S. numbers appear to be driven by overall levels of violent crime, while European numbers are driven by something quite different. Comments welcome.