Syria’s War At Israel’s Door

Sep 2 2014 @ 5:09pm
by Jonah Shepp

The Syrian civil war took an interesting turn late last week as fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra overran the Quneitra checkpoint between Syria proper and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and captured or surrounded dozens of UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines. Juan Cole finds precisely none of this surprising:

The London-based Al-`Arabi al-Jadid reports that Israeli Gen. Aviv Kochavi, now head of the Northern Command but until recently chief of military intelligence, has for two years been warning that the Syrian civil war could spill over onto Israel. Haaretz has also shown alarm at the developments. Not only is the Succor Front consolidating its hold on Golan, but the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is alleged to be infiltrating Syrian villages near Israel in the north. The Syrian army, once responsible for Israel-Syria border security, has “evaporated” after losing battles with the militants. The likelihood that Israel could in the long run be completely insulated from a raging civil war right next door, which has displaced 3 million abroad and more millions internally, was always low. The view that it is good for Israel when the Arabs fight one another is a glib and superficial piece of cynicism challenged by seasoned observers such as Gen. Kochavi.

One of the many side effects of Israel’s regional isolation is that it tends to treat conflicts in and among its neighbors as the Arabs’ problems and pay them relatively little mind, compared to the interest one might expect a country to take in violence so close to its borders. This isolation emerges from the intractability of the conflict and, to my mind, represents a noteworthy obstacle to regional peace.

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by Jonah Shepp

The war between Ukraine and Russia continues to escalate as heads of NATO member states arrive in Wales for a summit on the crisis. Russia has announced (NYT) that it is revising its military strategy in response to what it sees as belligerent behavior on the part of NATO, including the prospect of expanding the alliance to include Ukraine. Of course, Putin doesn’t help matters by telling European officials that he could “take Kiev in two weeks”, as he apparently did in a recent phone conversation with José Manuel Barroso. Marc Champion takes him seriously:

Earlier this year it was only those on the lunatic nationalist fringe in Moscow who talked about taking Kiev. Now it’s Putin. This is part of a disturbing pattern. For a long time, only ultranationalists talked about a place called Novorossiya, or New Russia. In April, Putin took that up, and by June the separatists in Ukraine had merged their self-proclaimed republics to found Novorossiya. So what are the Russian lunatics talking about now? Ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians in Novorossiya, and attacking Poland and the Baltic states.

I have no idea where Putin is going with this, and I think it’s wiser not to speculate too much, but he seems to be in the thrall of an ideology that lends itself to the logic of imperial aggression, as do his soaring poll numbers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he continued to escalate. On the other hand, as John Mearsheimer puts it in an essay (paywalled) on the origins of the Ukraine crisis, Putin’s belligerence didn’t come from nowhere:

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Mental Health Break

Sep 2 2014 @ 4:20pm
by Dish Staff

An artful rumination on the end of summer:

AUGUST is the last of a three-part series by filmmaker Mark Mazur. The first two parts were JUNE and JULY.

by Dish Staff

The famed evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has a plan to save biodiversity – but it will take about 50 percent of the planet:

Throughout the 544 million or so years since hard-shelled animals first appeared, there has been a slow increase in the number of plants and animals on the planet, despite five mass extinction events. The high point of biodiversity likely coincided with the moment modern humans left Africa and spread out across the globe 60,000 years ago. As people arrived, other species faltered and vanished, slowly at first and now with such acceleration that Wilson talks of a coming “biological holocaust,” the sixth mass extinction event, the only one caused not by some cataclysm but by a single species—us.

Wilson recently calculated that the only way humanity could stave off a mass extinction crisis, as devastating as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would be to set aside half the planet as permanently protected areas for the ten million other species. “Half Earth,” in other words, as I began calling it—half for us, half for them. A version of this idea has been in circulation among conservationists for some time.

How might that work? Wilson envisions “a chain of uninterrupted corridors” connecting “core” national biodiversity parks and other sanctuaries:

The new challenge, as Wilson sees it, is to link up national parks and wilderness reserves and restored landscapes to “protect in perpetuity entire faunas and floras.” He has high praise for several such projects out West—especially the Yellowstone-to-Yukon initiative to join vast areas of the U.S. and Canada, and the even more extensive Western Wildway vision, a tri-national arc of land along the length of the Rockies from Mexico to Alaska sponsored by the Wildlands Network, a consortium of biologists and activists headquartered in Seattle.

The Passing Of A Pigeon

Sep 2 2014 @ 3:39pm
by Dish Staff

The last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago yesterday. Elizabeth Kolbert mulls over the mystery of the bird’s extinction:

In his recent book “Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record,”MarthaErrol Fuller, a British author, argues that an “additional factor” must have been at work in the species’ extinction, because “in a land as vast as the United States there can be no mopping-up hunting for a species as small as a pigeon.” (Fuller’s book contains a grainy and not particularly flattering photo of Martha standing in her cage in Cincinnati.)

Some have argued that the “additional factor” was deforestation; by this account, it’s no coincidence that the passenger pigeon went extinct right about the same time that land clearing in the eastern U.S. reached its maximum extent. Others speculate that the passenger pigeon was one of those animals that require great densities to survive.

She adds that, whatever the answer, “the mystery should give us pause” because “species that seem today to be doing fine may be sensitive to change in ways that are difficult to foresee.” Carl Zimmer is on the same page:

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ISIS Murders Another American

Sep 2 2014 @ 3:15pm
by Jonah Shepp

News broke today that ISIS has made good on their threat to behead kidnapped journalist Steven Sotloff, when a video of the murder appeared on social media:

A masked figure in the video also issued a threat against a British hostage, a man the group named as David Haines, and warned governments to back off “this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State”, the SITE monitoring service said. The purported executioner appeared to be the same British-accented man who appeared in an Aug. 19 video showing the killing of American journalist James Foley, and it showed a similar desert setting. In both videos, the captives wore orange jumpsuits. “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and … on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings,” the man said. “So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”

For those who must have the details, the Wire provides a fuller account of the video, including Sotloff’s last words, in which he is forced to lament that he is “paying the price” for the US intervention in Iraq. Much as I’m convinced that Sotloff’s murder will do nothing for the jihadists but shock and disgust the world even more than their past atrocities already have, that’s not much comfort to his poor mother.

Our Microbes, Ourselves

Sep 2 2014 @ 3:02pm

Ed Yong reviews the first results from the Home Microbiome Project, which seeks to “map” the ecologies of microbes we carry with us wherever we go. What researchers learned after analyzing six weeks’ worth of participants’ swabs from around their homes:

[I]t rapidly became clear that each home has a distinctive microbiome, which comes largely from the people who live in it. Light switches and doorknobs look like hands. Floor looks like feet. Kitchen countertops look like skin. We turn our homes into microbial reflections of ourselves.

This happens quickly. As soon as we move into a space, we inject microbes into it, and those bugs colonise the area within 24 hours. One of the young couples demonstrated this in the starkest way:

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An Actual Fight Over Democracy

Sep 2 2014 @ 2:41pm
by Jonah Shepp

The crises in the Middle East and Ukraine are frequently described in ideological terms, as battles between freedom and tyranny, liberal democracy and illiberal authoritarianism. The latest piece in this vein is from Lilia Shevtsova, who calls Russia “an advance combat unit of the new global authoritarianism, with China acting as its informal leader and waiting in the wings to seize its own opportunities”. I think this argument may give both Russia and China too much credit, especially as the informal leader of the new global authoritarianism is feeling threatened by a pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. Evan Osnos looks in:

On Sunday, the Beijing government rejected demands for free, open elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executive, in 2017, enraging protesters who had called for broad rights to nominate candidates. China’s National People’s Congress announced a plan by which nominees must be vetted and approved by more than fifty per cent of a committee that is likely to be stacked with those who heed Beijing’s wishes. … Hong Kong’s growing activist network, known as Occupy Central (named after the city’s downtown) has increasingly alarmed leaders in Beijing, and they now describe the activism as a brush fire that could sweep over the mainland. In a piece published on Saturday, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, hinted about foreign agitators “attempting to turn Hong Kong into a bridgehead for subverting and infiltrating the Chinese mainland. This can absolutely not be permitted.”

Osnos analyzes the situation as a competition between nationalism and globalism; his analysis is instructive, but at a time when political thinkers are worrying themselves over the possibility that the Western model of liberalism is in decline or failing to gain traction in the developing world, this long-simmering conflict looks to me like the most clear-cut test case of liberalism vs. authoritarianism in the world today.

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by Alex Pareene

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Gives Annual State Of State Address

It’s not a perfect measure of partisan leaning, but according to the 2012 election results, New York is more Democratic than California and Minnesota, two states where Democrats control the entirety of the state governments, and where things have not yet completely collapsed in a morass of welfare handouts and tax hikes. So it’s a bit strange that the Republican Party controls the New York state Senate, the body where, traditionally, liberal legislative priorities have gone to die. It’s stranger when you learn that New York voters did actually give Democrats the majority in the Senate in 2012, at which point a coalition of state Senate Democrats known as the Independent Democratic coalition broke off from the party and formally allied with the GOP. Thus, the longtime state Senate Republican majority – the majority that had successfully thwarted nearly every liberal policy push made by the previous two Democratic governors – was preserved.

Andrew Cuomo likes to paint himself as the governor who saved New York from the political dysfunction that typified state politics during the reigns of his predecessors, David Paterson and Eliot Spitzer. Cuomo is the man who forced the sclerotic state legislature to finally act on marriage equality, criminal justice reform, and gun control. You would think that such a governor would prefer to work with Democratic majorities in both state legislative bodies, because, you know, those are all Democratic party priorities that Republicans (mostly) oppose.

You would be wrong. Blake Zeff (full disclosure: he’s my former editor) has a story at Capital New York that confirms what most observers of New York politics already suspected: Cuomo was instrumental in forging the alliance between the IDC and the GOP, because he never actually wanted his own party to wield real power in Albany:

When the coalition was created, Cuomo spoke with IDC leader Jeff Klein to offer advice on how to publicly sell the arrangement and move it forward. According to multiple sources, the governor advised the leaders of the new alliance to emphasize “progress on key issues,” such as campaign finance reform, stop and frisk and increasing the minimum wage. (The conference would use just that language in its announcement, and later release a minimum wage report that February and campaign finance plan in April.)

To move the arrangement forward, the governor and Schwartz would talk directly to Republican leaders and Klein. To help make the coalition work, the governor regularly spoke (by phone and in person) with GOP deputy majority leader Tom Libous, who was effectively Cuomo’s go-to person in the Republican Senate conference. GOP majority leader Dean Skelos was also involved in the discussion, and the governor would talk often in particular with top Skelos aide Robert Mujica. Meanwhile, another top administration official, Joe Percoco, was dispatched to deal with the Senate Democratic conference to try to assuage their concerns even as the governor helped their rivals.

Why would Cuomo do this?

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by Dish Staff

Last week, a nine-year-old firing an uzi accidentally shot and killed her instructor. Matt Valentine identifies pro-gun advocates critical of “putting a submachine gun in the hands of a slight nine year old” but he has “yet to hear any prominent gun rights advocates call for a change to the law—even to prohibit behavior they consider foolish and dangerous”:

To suggest a new regulation, no matter how reasonable, would be wholesale defection from the party line. The NRA tells us that gun laws are worse than useless. Criminals won’t obey them, so new laws “only punish lawful gun owners,” according to Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.

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