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Frederic Wehrey cautions against buying into the conventional wisdom about what’s going down in Libya:

Outside observers are often tempted toward a one-dimensional reading of Libya’s turmoil. It is easy to trace Libya’s breakdown as a political struggle between Islamists and liberals: The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party and more rejectionist, jihadi factions like Ansar al-Sharia versus the “liberals” under the National Forces Alliance (NFA). Another level of conflict seems to be regional: A contest between the towns of Zintan and Misrata for economic power and political leverage in Tripoli, or amongst federalists and their opponents in the long-marginalized east. Yet an additional layer is between remnants of the old order – ex-security men, long-serving and retired officers, former Gaddafi-era technocrats – and a newer, younger cadre of self-proclaimed “revolutionaries,” often Islamists, who were either exiled and/or imprisoned during the dictator’s rule.

Elements of all these dimensions are at play, but none of them alone has sufficient explanatory power. At its core, Libya’s violence is an intensely local affair, stemming from deeply entrenched patronage networks battling for economic resources and political power in a state afflicted by a gaping institutional vacuum and the absence of a central arbiter with a preponderance of force. There is not one faction strong enough to coerce or compel the others.

Meanwhile, Friedersdorf lays into the hawks who supported our role in overthrowing Qaddafi:

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Can Israel “Win” This War? Ctd

Jul 30 2014 @ 2:37pm

Brent Sasley says yes to that question:

When the dust settles, Israel will also have restored some of its deterrence against its enemies. Against Hamas specifically, it demonstrated it’s gotten over what we might call Cast Lead Syndrome: recoiling from the type of international opprobrium that war generated against Israel because of the scale of Palestinian deaths. In that conflict, between approximately 1,100 and 1,400 Gazans were killed, depending on what source one looks to for casualty figures. Yet already in Operation Protective Edge, more than 1,000 Palestinians may have been killed. Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become a cautious administrator since his first term in office, the temptation to keep going to destroy Hamas’ tunnel infrastructure has overcome his reluctance to use large-scale force. And the Israeli public has rallied behind him.

In a debate among Brookings experts, Michael Doran contends that whether or not Israel is “winning”, Hamas is definitely losing:

Six months from now, many Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, will ask themselves what all the pain and destruction that Hamas brought down on them was worth. Their disgruntlement will not weaken Hamas’s grip on power, because it is a dictatorship supported by foreign money. But the organization, as it stands before its people and lectures them on the need for more sacrifice, will surely clock the sullen faces that stare blankly back. As for the “support” that Hamas gets from public opinion in other parts of the Arab world that will certainly dissipate. Of course, it’s never been worth much anyway, throughout modern Arab history, because it never translates into lasting change in the behavior of states, the true power brokers in the region. Meanwhile, Hamas will have lost considerably on the battlefield.

But Shadi Hamid is not so sure:

Even if Hamas “loses” in the ways that you describe, it seems to me that they’re likely to at least be better off than they were before the conflict started.

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Keating looks at why the current epidemic has been so severe:

As political scientist Kim Yi Dionne notes, a number of factors have combined to make this the most deadly Ebola outbreak in history, and most of them are political rather than biological.

For one thing, none of these countries has experienced an outbreak of the disease before, so knowledge of it is low. For another, the fact that it’s spread to multiple countries makes a coordinated response more difficult. (Liberia has now shut almost all of its borders.) As Dionne notes, all three countries have poor health infrastructure, due in part to years of civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia has just .014 doctors per 1,000 people, and a common joke is that JFK Medical Center, Monrovia’s main hospital, has long had the unflattering nickname “Just For Killing.”

Which is why a major Ebola outbreak in America is unlikely. Olga Khazan tries to determine how this outbreak started:

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We Won’t Make Israel Make Peace

Jul 30 2014 @ 1:39pm

After John Kerry’s efforts to broker a ceasefire in the Gaza war crashed and burned, Zack Beauchamp asks why the $3 billion in aid we give Israel every year doesn’t seem to buy us any leverage:

Talk to Middle East analysts, and you get a clear sense that the US really could box Israel in a corner if it wanted to. “In theory, of course the US has enormous leverage over Israel,” says Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. But in “the very unlikely event” that “the US were to threaten the very alliance with Israel,” he says, it’d put immense pressure on an Israeli Prime Minister to bend.

Clearly, the United States doesn’t want to do that. But it has successfully pressured Israel before. For instance, the Bush administration forced Israel to back off an arms deal with China in 2005 by threatening to cut off military cooperation on certain projects. The US refused to give Israeli aircraft friend-or-foe codes during the Gulf War, effectively keeping Israel out. It refused to give American support for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, which amounted to vetoing it.

So it’s not that the US can’t ever push Israel. It’s that American policymakers aren’t willing to threaten the foundations of the US-Israeli relationship — aid, diplomatic support, and the like — over a ceasefire in Gaza or even a final status peace agreement.

Drum, on the other hand, is skeptical that the US could do anything to make peace between parties whose objectives are fundamentally incompatible. As long as that’s the case, he argues, we should just stop trying:

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Best Cover Song Ever?

Jul 30 2014 @ 1:01pm

From the latest round of nominees:

Faith No More’s “Easy”, a Lionel Richie cover. The deadpan, the guitar solo, the bored drag queens … Love it:

Another adds:

The ironic thing about this cover? It’s not really that ironic. A little tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but it really is a tribute from a band as far removed from the R&B/soul genre as could possibly be.

The next nominee also avoids irony:

If you’ve never heard this before, prepare yourself. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is so beautiful that it gives me chills. I’m not a fan of re-imagined versions of childhood favorites, but this is transcendent:

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The compulsively readable and admirably honest blogger, Rod Dreher, had an epiphany the other day. He was trying to define what he means by “traditional Christianity.” And what he means by the term is the following:

It seems to me that “traditional Christian” is political code for “Christians who adhere to traditional teaching about sex and sexuality.”

That is a really striking statement – though not one that exactly comes as a surprise to those familiar with Rod’s evolution over the years. It’s striking because it doesn’t actually concern itself with doctrine, the critical content of a faith tradition, like, say, the Resurrection of Jesus or the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not about a literal reading of Scripture as the only avenue to truth; it is not about whether doctrine can evolve; it is not about a belief in a personal, intervening God as opposed to a more distant and absent one. It is entirely about how one manages one’s private parts. Rod is pretty frank about that:

When I deploy the phrase “traditional Christians” in my writing, I’m not thinking about ecclesiology, sacramental theology, or any other thing that separates Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. What I’m thinking about — what we are all thinking about — is this: what separates “traditional Christians” from “modern Christians” (or “progressive Christians”) in our common discourse is their beliefs about sex. Nothing else, or at least nothing else meaningful.

He later clarified that he was talking about Christianity as it relates to the public square. And I can certainly see how, as an empirical matter, the sex issue has become central to public debates over abortion, homosexuality, marriage and so on. But the difference between me and Rod – and what I’d argue is the actual dividing line between modern and traditional Christians in the public square – is that I do not regard sexual jesus.jpgmatters to be that important in the context of what Christianity teaches about our obligations as human beings in the polity and the world. The difference between moderns and trads is that the trads see sex as the critical issue, and we moderns see a whole host of other issues.

My mum once told me as a kid that “sex outside marriage is a sin, but not that big a sin.” That remains my position. It’s up there with over-eating, excessive consumerism, the idolatry of money and profit, and spoliation of our environment – except the powerful sex drive in humans and the absence of any direct harm to another, gives sexual sin, I’d argue, a little more lee-way. The sexual obsession among trads, in other words, can be deeply distortive. It elides and displaces other vital issues. Access to universal healthcare and asylum for children escaping terror, for example, matter far more in traditional Christianity than whether my long-term relationship is deemed a civil marriage or a civil union. Torture is exponentially more sinful than a pre-marital fling – and yet it is embraced by evangelical “traditional” Christians most of all. The Catholic hierarchy has devoted far far less time and effort to combating torture than to preventing birth control as part of the ACA – to its eternal shame. And the centrality of sex to celibate traditional Christians has a lot to do with it.

I’d go further and argue that placing sex as the critical, core rampart of traditional Christianity is a very dangerous game. It’s dangerous because sexual repression is a very potent psychological tool. A key part of traditional religion’s success in luring and keeping adherents can be by leveraging sexual sacrifice into a greater collective sense of belonging and meaning. If people have to give up sex to be a faithful adherent to religion, they are much more likely to attach themselves strongly to that faith, if only to justify their sacrifice. They are also more likely to want others to join in – to help buttress their commitment. I think that’s where Rod’s point is strongest.

But it’s also where it’s weakest. Faith should surely not be a function of sexual repression. And sexual repression should not be a tool for religious faith.

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Gaza Goes Dark

Jul 30 2014 @ 12:22pm

How can you punish a people more than bombing their schools, hospitals and playgrounds? Knock out their only power plant:

The plant’s general manager, Jamal Dersawi, told NBC News that the loss of the structure is a “major disaster” for Gaza’s 1.8 million residents, whose electricity has already been limited by damage to power lines from Israel. According to Reuters, the plant provides two thirds of the energy in Gaza, including the area’s water sanitation facilities and pumps. (Residents are now being told to be careful with their water consumption.) The structure could be out of operation for up to a year.

Jesse Rosenfeld doubts it was an accident:

This is not the first time Israel has knocked out Gaza’s power plant and targeted essential infrastructure. Indeed, this is almost part of a standard playbook. Following Hamas’ kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, Israel plunged Gaza into darkness with a retaliatory strike on the power plant. The bombing and escalation in Gaza set off a series of events that led to a full-on war in Lebanon as well as Gaza. …

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This time-lapse video purports to show the Israeli military flattening a Gaza neighborhood over the course of an hour. In Rashid Khalidi’s take, Israeli leaders have done the same to the peace process:

What Israel is doing in Gaza now is collective punishment. It is punishment for Gaza’s refusal to be a docile ghetto. It is punishment for the gall of Palestinians in unifying, and of Hamas and other factions in responding to Israel’s siege and its provocations with resistance, armed or otherwise, after Israel repeatedly reacted to unarmed protest with crushing force. Despite years of ceasefires and truces, the siege of Gaza has never been lifted.

As Netanyahu’s own words show, however, Israel will accept nothing short of the acquiescence of Palestinians to their own subordination. It will accept only a Palestinian “state” that is stripped of all the attributes of a real state: control over security, borders, airspace, maritime limits, contiguity, and, therefore, sovereignty. The twenty-three-year charade of the “peace process” has shown that this is all Israel is offering, with the full approval of Washington. Whenever the Palestinians have resisted that pathetic fate (as any nation would), Israel has punished them for their insolence. This is not new.

Contrary to Netanyahu’s purposes, Khaled Elgindy argues, the war has united the Palestinian factions and made a third intifada more likely:

Hamas’ relative success on the battlefield has boosted the group’s popularity while highlighting Abbas’ perceived impotence. According to one recent poll, since the Gaza crisis began, popular support for Hamas has outstripped support for Fatah for the first time in several years. Even so, most Palestinians understand the limitations of engaging in armed struggle against a formidable military power like Israel. As a result, despite the recent collapse of U.S.-led peace talks, Abbas’ negotiations agenda remains relevant.

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Yesterday, Europe and the US announced new sanctions against Russia. Obama explains the gist:

The Cable summarizes the news:

The new European sanctions go further than ever before but still fall short of the type of “sectoral sanctions” that would block business with entire Russian industries. That reflects EU leaders’ concerns that hitting Russia too hard would also hurt their own companies and industries. The arms embargo, for instance, doesn’t apply to existing agreements. That means the $1.6 billion French deal to sell Mistral warships to Russia, which had come under fire from British officials last week, will be allowed to go forward, though France has said it will only deliver the first one while re-evaluating whether to also deliver the second.

That’s not the only sacred cow left untouched. While the new coordinated measures target future oil production, they don’t touch the natural gas business, a pillar of Russia’s export economy and a lifeline for Europeans. Both the United States and Europe took steps to restrict trade in key oil industry equipment needed for extracting oil from deep waters, in the Arctic, and from shale — all areas where Russia hopes to boost its oil output in years to come. The U.S. Commerce Department said it will limit the export of crucial oil technology to Russia, but it is not yet clear exactly what goods and services will be banned, how that will affect Russia’s current oil production, or even how much U.S. and European firms will be hit by export bans on certain oil projects.

Robert Kahn foresees “inexorable momentum for further sanctions”:

(1) Europe now is less of a constraint on further U.S. action; (2) Ukraine is achieving success on the battlefield, and without intensified Russian involvement would likely see further gains. If recent evidence of Russian shelling across the border is any indication, Russia has intensified its support in response to developments on the ground, which is justification for further sanctions; and (3) sanctions are likely to be extended over time in response to evasion. This last point is often unappreciated.

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Bad Science On The Big Screen

Jul 30 2014 @ 10:59am

Jeffrey Kluger is frustrated by Lucy, a film premised on the widely believed misconception that we only use 10 percent of our brains:

The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs…. “We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

So why does the myth persist? A theory from neuroscientist David Eagleman:

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