Its name is aseptic yet enormously controversial: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It is the accord between the United States, Iran, and a slew of world powers on the control and elimination of nuclear arms that Teheran proposed (or proposes) to manufacture. It was backed by all the biggies: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Naturally, Israel hit the roof. If Iran develops nuclear weapons, it's got everything. It already has enough rockets to destroy Israel in a surprise attack. It would not be dissuaded by the fact that about 1.5 million Israeli Arabs would also die. Islam provides heaven's glorious consolation for Muslim martyrs.
An exaggeration? That's what the ayatollahs incessantly claim. Eighty years ago, many Jews refused to believe what a zealous imbecile with a ridiculous little moustache wrote in Mein Kampf. He ended up killing six million Jews and forever eliminated Europe's brilliant Jewry.
But Israel is not alone. Two hundred retired U.S. generals, admirals and vice-admirals have just signed a letter asking U.S. legislators not to support the pact. They're doing it not only for Israel; they're thinking of the interests of the United States and its allies.
The officers wield unsettling arguments. They are certain that Iran will not abide by the agreement; that the non-manufacture of nuclear bombs cannot be verified; that the agreement gives Iran greater access to billions of dollars, many of which will help subsidize Hezbollah terrorists; and that Iran's nuclear capability will turn the Middle East into a place less safe than it already is, triggering a nuclear race with other Arab states.
Curiously, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proved the U.S. officers right. After the accord was announced, he stated that Iran would not change its stance. The destruction of Israel continued to be a sacred and permanent objective.
Of course, not all American officers share the perceptions of those who protested. Two weeks ago, three dozen former officers, their ranks as august as those of their dissenting counterparts, asked Congress for the opposite -- to support the pact inked by Barack Obama and John Kerry with the ayatollahs.
They argue that the accord reduced the chances of conflict; they suppose that any noncompliance by Iran could be detected, and believe that there is no better option than the one achieved. According to this group, the agreement is the best of all possible pacts in the imperfect world of international relations.
In a certain fashion, the pro-pact officers respond to a nationalist American trend -- one expressed by theoreticians who are convinced that this huge country with its 310 million inhabitants should not be drawn into a dangerous conflict by the state of Israel, or by any other nation.
In any case, why do Obama and Kerry deal with Iran? Judging from Kerry's words, reported by the Reuters news agency, it is because they want to save the United States from the antipathy aroused by U.S. policy in the Middle East.
They want the United States to be loved and admired and are bothered by the rejection that their country apparently provokes. Probably, like so many critical Americans, especially in the academic scene, they share some embarrassment over Washington's standard international conduct.
In reality, Obama and Kerry have fallen into the trap of believing that the anti-American propaganda so widely disseminated and forcefully hammered reflects the criteria of public opinion.
They don't realize that there is a permanent anti-American campaign, persistent and effective, that projects an alleged collective criterion that comes not from society in general but from a small and vociferous elite that distorts reality and has made "anti-Yankeeism" its leitmotif.
Maybe when Kerry protested against the war in Vietnam -- a war in which he fought -- or when Obama was a community organizer, they agreed with the analyses of those who were ashamed of U.S. behavior -- intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky or the late Saul Alinsky.
But that, strictly speaking, although it represents a majority opinion of university educators and is one of the left's identifying marks, is not the opinion endorsed by most of the international community, especially ordinary men and women.
The objective reality is that the United States is one of the world's most admired countries, the nation where the poor of half the planet wish to live, as revealed by the huge poll conducted every year by Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands, whose pollsters question more than 20,000 people in 20 countries of significance.
In the indices they compile, until 2014 the United States headed the list of the 10 most loved nations. Today the U.S. ranks second -- Germany has taken pole position. The other eight are the usual suspects: the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Australia and Sweden.
That's the truth. The rest is sleight of hand.
As fighting picks up again in Eastern Ukraine, living conditions seem to be getting worse.
Ukrainian daily news site Glavonye.ua cites worsening economic conditions in the separatist Luhansk region, where heavy battles between separatist and Ukrainian forces are taking place. Luhansk residents under new laws imposed by the separatist government can now lose their apartments if they don't pay their utilities bills, and they can lose their cars if they fail to pay their taxes. Locals share horror stories about how complicated it has become to pay bills for electricity, water, and gas: A esident needs to spend the entire day paying the bills.
"The town has a local bank belonging to the Luhansk People's Republic. Many are afraid to go there to pay for services, instead going from one utility company to another to pay bills on the spot," a Luhansk resident said. "It must be done that way, because if authorities find out that the bills were not paid since last winter, the militants will simply take away your apartment."
According to locals, confiscated apartments have been given to refugees from nearby communities whose homes were destroyed by shelling. In another worrying trend, cars are reportedly seized from taxi drivers who refuse to pay what Luhansk authorities characterize as taxes. One such driver, who lost his car in June, said separatists explained their actions as "confiscation for civil disobedience" -- those who work for official taxi companies are obliged to work for a registered firm, with all available documents. Otherwise the militants simply take the car, citing "the needs of the republic."
Meanwhile, Ukrainian daily Obozrevatel.ua published a special multimedia report on domestic unmanned aerial systems fighting against separatists and Russian forces. The site explained that when fighting broke out in the Donbas, volunteers used their money and resources to make devices that could perform minimal but important tasks. Despite being minimally equipped with items such as a photo camera and simple communications systems, these UAVs proved successful. A year on, the volunteer initiative has been strengthened, and there are now design bureaus backed by public funds that develop technologies for the needs of the army and security agencies. According to Pavel Barbul, director of SpetsTechnoExport, "within a year, we have created an unmanned aircraft industry. A year ago, it was plywood or foam models with GoPro cameras. Now we have modern surveillance/reconnaissance/observation systems that perform in a tough enemy environment, and can successfully compete with the best global analogues."
With demand from the military growing, Ukrainian developers and manufacturers are competing for orders with stringent operational requirements. Several manufacturers are close to bringing their concepts and prototypes to full battle readiness. Two such UAVs are the Odessa-built Sparrow and Columba, recently tested by the General Staff. The lightweight Sparrow is designed for quick reconnaissance on the battlefield, while the heavy Columba has a flight range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles), a maximum flying altitude of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), and electronics capable of autonomous location and tracking of targets. Another reconnaissance drones is the Fury -- a tactical UAV developed in 2014 by the Athlone-Avia firm. Its prototypes were field-tested by volunteer army battalions and brigades.
Having developed small tactical drones, Ukrainian engineers have been actively developing heavy reconnaissance and attack UAVs, some of which will be designed for day and night patrols, while others should have the capacity to strike with precision weapons. One such drone, the Kіber 3-Eye, is undergoing testing - it was designed to be in the air for up to 10 hours and at a range of 250 kilometers (156 miles). Ukrainians are also working on the development of the Kosa attack drone, while volunteer-backed effort resulted in the PF-1 scout drone, which is capable of operating for more than 5 hours. The growth of a domestic high-tech industry capable of designing and building such technology is of crucial importance, according to Pavel Barbul: "We are interested in every bolt, every microchip and every line of code being developed here in Ukraine."
The United States remains the global leader in fielded military robotic and autonomous systems -- from unmanned aerial systems, in use now for a decade and a half, to emerging land, sea, and undersea-based technologies that may see use in future conflicts. America is pouring financial, technical, and intellectual support into such advanced developments, and while countries such as Israel are also seen at the forefront of armed robotics, Russia and China are trying to close the gap. Pressed by sanctions and afflicted by a worsening national economy, Moscow is nonetheless seeking to match America's strength in emerging technologies through domestic developments of asymmetrical and in-kind inventions.
The Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda often interviews government officials on foreign policy and domestic matters, thus giving voice to official doctrines. The publication recently looked at how the Russian Federation might counter American technological dominance in future conflicts. The newspaper characterized the most cutting-edge U.S. efforts at military innovation as frequently amounting to giveaways by lawmakers to key contractors such as Lockheed and Boeing, but worried nevertheless about the definite military advantage they could give the United States if actually deployed.
So what is Russia doing in response?
The paper said the development of "managed flocks" of militarized robotic "bugs and spiders" are an obvious fantasy, and Russia will not go down that path - never mind that recent developments at Harvard have produced exactly what some in Russia are trying to dismiss.
"Such weapons are of an offensive nature, while our military doctrine is defensive," said the paper. "Therefore, we will build weapons of a defensive nature, developing and producing that which is necessary for war." Dismissing a fully autonomous robot as "utopia," Russia will seek to develop and field remote-controlled systems such as the recently unveiled "Avatar" robotic concept. KP further emphasized that human operators of such systems can solve the complex problem of "friend or foe" recognition: "If there is an artificial brain in such a system, you never know what may happen, since 'friend or foe' computer and signal mechanics can be easily suppressed by means of electronic warfare, which is one of Russia's key military strengths."
The paper further emphasized the key importance of electronic warfare (EW) in Russian military doctrine: "Our EW is a weapon of asymmetric warfare. Without sending reconnaissance units to enemy territory and creating thunderous explosions, EW can detect and disrupt enemy radar control systems and recognition of radio controlled fuses, as well as affect information networks, including mobile communications and the Internet, and even satellites. In recent years, we successfully completed the testing and commercial production of two dozen new models of EW equipment, such as Borisoglebsk-2, Krasuha C4, Moscow-1, Leer-2, Leer-3, and many others."
The paper further stated that Russia will not develop bacteriological weapons, since "it's impossible to create a magical vaccine capable of protecting 100 percent of the population and the army from bacteria and viruses. But we do not lose vigilance and are learning to resist biological weapons."
KP also cited the development of the Merlin-21b and Inspector 01 reconnaissance drones. Merlin has an onboard all-weather radar that can detect concealed objects, while the Inspector can stay in the air for two days -- its electric motor and a unique battery also make it silent and undetectable by heat signature. The paper also confirmed Russian anti-UAV development.
KP also confirmed that Moscow is taking cyber threats, and protection against them, very seriously: "We are creating a protected Internet for the public sector and defense industry, we are increasing education of cybersecurity specialists in universities, and are expanding the development of domestic software and their means of protection," the paper wrote.
Compromise is a value coming under increasing pressure in Europe -- and so are the centrist political parties that champion it. With so-called radical parties gaining support seemingly everywhere, the Continent may be facing a return to the polarization of pre-1940 politics. Meanwhile, centrist politicians are at a loss to find a solution.
It wasn't that long ago that Europe faced the first recent instance of a rise of radical parties. When Jurgen Haider's populist FPO rose to power in Austria in the late 1990s almost overnight -- along with the Danish People's Party in Denmark -- on a strongly anti-immigration platform, centrist parties in the rest of the Continent scoffed. This would blow over, they thought. Blow over it did not.
Everywhere in Europe -- north, west, east, and south -- radical parties are making strong gains.
Whether backing the left-wing Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, the extremist right-wing Jobbik in Hungary, the Front National in France, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden or the far-left leading candidate for Labour leadership in the United Kingdom, more and more voters seem fed up with centrist politics.
The radicalism -- and attractiveness -- of these parties perhaps lies not so much in their policy proposals but in their vows to not compromise on their promises. Voters seem unwilling to accept that successful politics lies in the art of attaining the possible -- and thus compromising, making gains with small steps. Instead, voters want it all, they want it now, and they seem to be getting angrier every time an election promise is broken.
Nowhere is this mechanism currently more visible than in the Netherlands. The country of 16 million has among the world's best health care and social welfare systems, and the average Dutch voter -- left and right -- wants it to remain as such. As a result, political parties of all colors, different as they may be in their ideologies, all coalesce around one central promise: to keep these popular, government-funded services afloat at a minimum added cost to taxpayers.
When the center-right conservative Liberal party, or VVD, and the center-left Social Democrats, or PvdA, formed a government together, some election promises were bound to be broken. Where the PvdA celebrated an electoral scoop of 38 seats in 2012, it now languishes at 9 to 11 seats in the polls. The VVD has also lost nearly half its seats, dropping from 41 in 2012 to 23 to 25 in an average of polls. Proposals to spend extra money on popular government programs have so far fallen on deaf ears as voters, research reveals, simply can't find it in their hearts to forgive the parties for their broken promises.
Public wrath was on full display this month after Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD reneged on his 2012 election promise that "we shall send not one more euro cent to Greece" by publicly supporting the third European loan package to Greece and admitting that, yes, he was breaking his promise. Parliament exploded, with opposition parties bashing Rutte in a rowdy debate session. In a bid to quell the expected backlash in the upcoming polls, the VVD in parliament provoked indignant laughter when it declared in an all-too-obvious pander to its voters that it was forced to vote for the loan package, even though its spokesman said the party really, really, really did not want to. On Dutch social media, VVD voters cried foul en masse.
The question is now what efforts Europe's centrist politicians -- those artists of compromise -- are going to undertake to counter the ever-widening gulf between them and their angry voters. So far, they appear not to have a coherent answer. They trudge on, hoping that an improving economy will assuage voter fury.
With the refugee crisis engulfing Europe and increasing numbers of voters convinced that these new arrivals are coming to prey on their entitlements, there is every danger that centrists will shift gears into electoral survival mode and try the easy way out: mimicking the radicals, thereby destroying centrist politics itself. Since it is the willingness to compromise that has kept most of Europe at peace since 1945, no one knows what a return to the polarized politics of a long-gone age may bring.
Whether you count yourself a fan of President Barack Obama's Middle East policies or a foe, one thing should be stunningly obvious by now: A good part of the president's foreign policy travails in this region stem from a pattern of needlessly high-flying rhetoric. Indeed, time after time again, Obama has gratuitously and unnecessarily raised expectations and then failed to deliver on them.
These largely self-inflicted wounds created an early gap between Obama's words and his administration's deeds -- a gap that damaged America's credibility and fed doubts about U.S. resolve in the minds of allies and adversaries alike.
That gap has never closed, and far from learning from his mistakes, Obama has carried on his pattern of making commitments upon which he cannot deliver. Consider the following.
Israeli-Palestinian peace: The pattern of setting high bars in the total absence of a valid or even compelling policy reason started almost immediately. Two days after his inauguration, Obama, in a personal appearance at the Department of State, appointed George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy. No president since Jimmy Carter had invested so much so early in an issue that simply was not ready for prime time. The matter was made worse by administration's calls for a comprehensive Israeli freeze on settlements that it was unwilling or unable to pressure Israel to accept, and for a peace agreement within two years, a notion that even then looked like a fantasy. It was also hampered by an intensive effort by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-2014 to produce a draft peace accord that had zero chance of becoming reality. Today, the administration's peace process lies in ruins. It has no credibility among Arabs and Israelis.
‘Assad Must Go' and the Syrian Red-Line: Next came two more examples of presidential rhetoric outstripping U.S. willingness and motivation to act. Perhaps understandably, in response to the Assad regime's savage use of air and artillery strikes against civilians, including the use of barrel bombs, the president repeatedly called for the removal of the Syrian dictator and in 2011 warned that the regime's use of chemical weapons was unacceptable, suggesting a tough U.S. response. The backstory of Obama's retreat from the so-called redline need not detain us here. The point is that for a second time in the Middle East, on a crisis far more important than the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian problem, the president committed himself to actions he did not take. There was no military response to the red line's crossing by Assad. Not only does the dictator still hold power, but the United States may well have no choice, if there is a political process to end Syria's civil war, but to accept Assad as part of the solution.
Defeating ISIS: Having first underestimated the danger of the Islamic State, characterizing it in 2014 as a JV team, the president soon began to talk of degrading and ultimately destroying the putative terror state. The latest rhetorical formulation Obama used was that of being "on track to defeat" ISIS. The president cannot afford to take the threat lightly. But none of the words he has used -- first destroy, then defeat -- seem to have any grounding in reality. A year after the Islamic State established its caliphate, it is ensconced in Syria, and in Iraq too. And while the United States has had success in killing ISIS fighters and leaders, and in working with local allies to recover territory, the Islamic State seems here to stay. Recent reports that the administration has only trained some 60 Syrian recruits for the battle against ISIS -- some of whom were promptly killed or captured by Jabhat al-Nusrah, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria -- only attest to the gap between promises and delivery.
The Iran Agreement: Clearly the nuclear deal is the one issue on which the administration has actually delivered on its commitment. Paradoxically, it is also the one issue over the past several years on which the president and his advisers have actually lowballed their expectations and not raised hopes to unrealistic levels. But even here, there seems to be a tendency to oversell, with Kerry suggesting that inspections would be carried out forever or saying that the United States has absolute certainty that it will know what Iran may be hiding. Selling the agreement to Congress is more difficult because of the administration's earlier commitments to seek anywhere, anytime inspections and to ensure that Tehran will come clean on the so-called possible military dimensions of Iran's past nuclear activities. Neither of these objectives was probably ever achievable, and the administration likely knew that at the time.
All administrations promise more than they can deliver. Just look at Obama's predecessor when it came to Iraq. What is odd is that this president deemed himself a realist, not a transformer, when it comes to the Middle East; and yet he seems to fall into the expectations gap so frequently.
When you do not or will not act, words become substitutes for deeds. Part of the problem may be that the administration sees the world the way it wants it to be, not the way it really is. Perhaps part of the issue is a desire to deflect pressure by the use of bold words. Whatever the explanation, to have credibility in foreign policy you must say what you mean, and mean what you say. Sadly, far too many times, the Obama administration has done exactly the opposite.
Airstrikes carried out last weekend by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad serve as just the latest brutal reminder of the total war that is being waged in the country, and evince a divisive strategy by the regime against the people it once called its fellow countrymen and women.
Rights groups, as well as activists in Syria, reported as many as 100 people killed in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Sunday; an attack described as "an official massacre" by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based watchdog.
This isn't the first time Douma has suffered under Assad's cynical and severe tactics, and it probably won't be the last. A tinderbox of anti-Assad protest in the early days of the Syrian uprising, the community has been the target of brutal massacres and bombardments for years now.
That the regime targeted the Damascus suburb's primary market during rush hour was undoubtedly deliberate -- punishment dispensed upon a people guilty of harboring rebel elements, chiefly the Free Syrian Army.
And it isn't just in Douma that Assad's suburb strategy is now coming into focus. In Moadamiyeh, the government has instituted strict checkpoints, and is now literally walling off and starving out its people. The Daily Beast's Michael Weiss explains:
"For years, the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyah [sic] has seen the worst of Bashar al-Assad's war crimes. Not only was it hit with sarin gas in the infamous August 2013 attack, its people also were subjected to a year-long terror-famine -- a policy of ‘starvation or submission,' as one Assad regime official put it at the time.
A ‘truce' was supposed to allow food, medical equipment, and people to come and go from Moadamiyah, but after serial violations the regime has now quietly constructed a 4-meter earthen wall to block off the last remaining point of entry and exit. For five nights straight, the town has faced artillery bombardment and today there have been reports of daytime shelling as well. Six are dead and dozens more injured, according to residents."
But when the regime looks at communities like Douma and Moadamiyeh, it no longer sees people or public interest -- it only sees crucial access points to hospitals, army bases, and loyalist communities, such as the Alawites. But in order to faithfully control and secure these places, the government must punish and isolate others.
This is a cold, calculated acknowledgement of this war's stakes, of which the continuity of the Syrian state no longer appears to be one. And a Syria in which the Assad regime is no longer an objective force for stability and cohesive action, but rather one of several sectarian actors, is a far more dangerous and deadly place for the civilians caught in the middle.
China has devalued its currency several times. This is a crisis measure with some very negative aspects: for starters, a drop in the value of Chinese property. China's wealthiest billionaire has already lost $11 billion through the act of state legerdemain. It is an instant destruction of capital.
Why did China do it? Beijing wants to re-energize exports, which have declined by 8 percent over one year. But it will be hard to sustain such a goal by these means. Countries that have restricted their imports won't resume them just because Chinese exports are a little bit cheaper. They reduced them, as did Brazil and the oil exporters, because the drop in the price of raw materials left them with less spending power than they had in the past.
Government leaders are naive to think that an economy can grow indefinitely at a 10 percent yearly clip. Japan, which sustained that rate for 25 years, managed to build one of history's most prosperous societies, to the extent that futurologists predicted that the 21st Century would be the Japanese century - yet Japan's economy stagnated many years ago.
Still, while developing, Japan created a huge middle class and a productive apparatus capable of generating near-full employment. Long after its economy cooled off, it has an annual per-capita gross national product of $37,800 measured in purchasing power - the same as England's.
China has taken a great leap forward since the early 1980s, just as Mao wished, but by the hand of Deng Xiaoping and his pro-capitalist dictum, "To get rich is glorious." On its astounding road to progress -- the true progressive societies are those that depend on private industry and the market -- the country has rescued 500 million people from misery; but 800 million are still waiting for the new model to benefit them.
China's annual per-capita GNP is $12,900 - the same as the Dominican Republic. It has a long way to go before it is a truly wealthy society, one populated by middle classes.
On the road it has followed, it is possible that China will fail to achieve its objectives and will in the process generate a major domestic and international upheaval. The country is trying out an economic duality that likely won't work. On one hand, the vigor of its entrepreneurs and their capacity to generate wealth denotes an excellent performance. On the other hand, the presence of the Chinese state in the design of the future, based on its alleged ability to predict what will happen and how, leads to wastefulness and error.
A crystal-clear example is the pharaonic project to build a new interoceanic canal in Nicaragua at a cost of $50 billion (before the devaluation; now the cost has gone up).
Purportedly, the project is the dream of a private investor, but obviously the Chinese state stands behind him. Why? Undoubtedly, an urge to control an important maritime channel. This resembles China's attempt to buy 300 square kilometers of Iceland or to gain a notable presence in Greenland.
Such is the caprice of strategists in the Chinese Communist Party, convinced that control of the world is attained by placing themselves in the world's presumably key spots, in great measure as done successively by Portugal, Holland, England, and the United States for five centuries. They do not realize that the powerful fleets and the control of certain enclaves were not the cause but the consequence of the success of the companies that engaged in trade.
Their outdated mentality leads to ruin. In reality, in a contemporary open economy, what determines the success of a society is not its control of the sea channels but the success of its entrepreneurs.
Japan was never as powerful as when its entrepreneurs created Sony, Honda, Toyota and the rest of the fabulous companies, sentenced in extremis to innovate and improve the quality of their offers so as not to disappear in the flames of "the market's destructive-creative fire," as described by Schumpeter.
Planning by the state makes no sense at the micro- and macro-economic levels - even less so when politicians try to divine the path of history, and worse still when they try to lead it in any direction. Demographics, natural disasters, technological and scientific inventions, and people's unpredictable actions suddenly change the course of events and destroy the objective of controlling the future.
China's leaders need to gain a deep understanding of the thinking of Friedrich Hayek, Nobel laureate in Economics, about the growth of the market's spontaneous order. If they applied it to geopolitics, they'd become aware of the poverty of the old ideas of development that still addle their little pates.
As U.S. lawmakers enjoy their annual summer recess, the eyes of the country's politicos and beat reporters turn to the increasingly contentious -- and at times absurd -- 2016 presidential election. And while the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party fights to fend off indictment, her opponents across the political aisle have shifted their attention to foreign policy.
Amid continued violence and unrest across the Middle East, GOP contenders are taking the opportunity to laud the success of the so-called surge in Iraq. But The Week's Michael Brendan Dougherty isn't having it:
"The very possibility of asserting U.S. leadership in this region is hampered by our failures in the surge. ISIS has proven itself very effective in punishing and killing Sunni tribal leaders who were known to have collaborated with U.S. forces during the Sunni ‘Awakening' of 2007. The calculation on the ground in 2015 may be that finding some accommodation with the radicals of ISIS is a safer bet than trusting that the U.S. military won't leave them to be slaughtered in the near future."
U.S. officials will naturally lean on the 2007 surge because it provided a cursory comfort in a part of the world that few have been able to figure out. If applying excess U.S. force to a problem, coupled with local cooperation, worked before, why wouldn't it work again?
The surge, however, was never intended to be the end, but merely the means.
"The surge was meant to have military success create a space for political reconciliation because only political reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni and Shia could ultimately bring the fighting in Iraq to an end. And that political reconciliation never happened," said Peter Beinart in an interview with NPR.
And it won't, so long as Washington continues to find itself at cross-purposes in the Mideast. Desiring both the defeat of Sunni radicalism and the curtailment of Iranian power in the region, the United States hopes to simultaneously contain two contradictory forces without begetting gain for either of them. Both are embedded, however, across multiple countries, in what geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan refers to as the "sub-state."
"Civilizations represent a thick depository of language, culture, and values. The sub-state represents a dynamic solidarity group. Put the two together, as they are in revolutionary Iran, and you have a formidable adversary to ossifying Arab states," writes Kaplan.
Add to that the jihadist sub-state found across large swaths of the Sunni heartland in Iraq and Syria, and you get an explosive combination. Moreover, the Middle East is more divided, more sectarian, and less stable than the Middle East that America invaded more than 12 years ago. And the surge, as Dougherty notes, only enabled the long-term vitality of the Mideast sub-states.
It's a difficult challenge for U.S. policymakers moving forward, and it leaves the country's next chief executive in an unenviable position.
U.S. President Barack Obama has come under fire from Atlanticists for supposedly abandoning America's allies, such as those in Europe. He is criticized for not doing enough to stand up to Russia's Vladimir Putin. This criticism comes too easy; it is Europe itself that isn't doing enough, and Obama is right to push it along.
In his famous Long Telegram of 1946 to the U.S. State Department, George Kennan painted a dark picture of the Russian-led Soviet Union. In an 8,000-word missive that can be read here, Kennan wrote that the Russian people have always been surrounded by enemies -- or considered themselves to be -- a condition that over the centuries led them to believe that disagreements will ultimately be settled by conflict.
Whether Kennan's observations from 1946 still describe today's Russia is up for debate, but there is no question that former Soviet territories and satellites remain in complete agreement. Eastern European nations such as Poland and the Baltic States have increased their defense spending. These nations have either already gone beyond the NATO directive that members should spend at last 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, or be on their way to achieving that goalpost.
How different the story is in Western Europe, which comprises those nations that in name are the closest friends of the United States within NATO. In a number of these nations, defense spending has actually dropped or has stayed flat since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, in which Moscow used unorthodox tactics to annex Crimea and wreak havoc in Eastern Ukraine.
These nations pay lip service to countering Vladimir Putin's brutal power plays, but they seem unwilling to actually put their money where their mouth is. Instead, the French, German, British, and Dutch governments heed their voters, who seem more concerned with the economy, and with the upkeep of their health care and social systems. Although Russia's armed interventions have made defense spending a little less unpopular, polls show that no serious party in a Western European country would today win elections on a platform of higher defense spending.
This irks Washington. For years the U.S. government has been lobbying its friends to increase their spending on defense. Washington wants these countries to take up more of NATO's tasks while the United States pivots to Asia, where it is quite rightly worried about Chinese adventurism. But it appears the capitals of Western Europe aren't convinced by talk. So maybe they need to be confronted by facts.
Obama materially showing that the United States will no longer simply come to Europe's rescue may finally convince Western European governments that they need to do more to strengthen their defense - especially now that their Eastern European allies are upping their game, despite financial difficulties of their own.
If Putin and his cronies are the kind of conflict-prone Russians Kennan described in his Long Telegram -- and Putin's actions so far seem to point in this direction -- then Europe needs to be able to bare its own teeth in response.
The energy situation in Ukraine has been precarious for years -- going back long before the separatist rebellion in the country's east, and the loss of Crimea to Russian military action. The crisis now stands to get much worse.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently said his country will face one of two scenarios during the upcoming winter: "The First is bad. The second is very bad."
Yatseyuk's pessimistic prognostication is due mostly to an inadequate supply of coal, his nation's main energy source. At this point, it looks like Kiev does not have enough money to buy the 7 million tons of coal needed to provide heat to its citizens -- the Ukrainian government needs $500 million. If the winter turns really cold -- the "very bad" scenario -- $900 million will be needed in order to purchase 11 million tons of coal. That is a lot of money for an already cash-strapped Kiev, and with reserves shrinking, Ukrainian power stations are stopping operations.
To make matters worse, coal is plentiful in the Donbas, and thus under the control of the secessionist Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DNR and LNR). According to the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kiev is currently negotiating coal purchases with Luhansk separatists, as well as with Russia. The progress of negotiations, given the state of belligerence between the parties, is still unclear. Donbas coal and energy reserves have been crucial in the past, and not only for Ukraine. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, striking coal miners shut down most energy production in the region and nearly paralyzed an already fragile Soviet economy, prompting then-President Mikhail Gorbachev to grant miners' demands for better pay and working conditions.
According to official Russian government sources, energy does play an important part in the ongoing conflict between the Kiev government and the Moscow-backed DNR/LNR separatists -- and not, as many Ukrainians have said repeatedly over the past two years, their aspirations for a more responsive and less corrupt government and society. Almost a year ago, as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine began to intensify, Frantz Klintzevich, the vice chairman of the Russian Parliament's Defense Committee, during an interview with Russian daily Izvestia said that the end game is shale gas deposits in Donbas:
"[T]here are considerable reserves of shale gas in Luhansk and Donetsk, exceeding our Siberian reserves by a wide margin," he said. "Getting to it is still environmentally harmful. The West is sending a small number of people and military advisers in order to gain control on the ground. The border is now created precisely to keep out others when other processes will start" -- presumably he was referring to energy-related processes. "There is a cleaning process afoot in order to create a springboard for the extraction of shale gas, to create a buffer zone.
Like his fellow Russian government officials, Klintzevich did not hesitate to cite history in order to portray Ukraine in a negative light: "Hitler once said ‘We do not care about the Soviet Union, our main goal is the Donbas.'"
Klintzevich wanted to convince readers that Moscow has no hand in what is happening in Ukraine and has no intention of getting involved. He portrayed Russia's actions as defensive in nature, even if his statements appeared bizarre and out of sync with reality:
"[E]verything connected with Novorossya is very important for America," he said, adding that the land "is needed as a springboard that will host high-precision weapons capable of bringing Russia to its knees. They don't say it out loud, but that is why today there is a cleansing of local populations." Giving further details of what he thought NATO wanted there, he went on to say that "NATO's plans correspond to what is taking place there -- destabilize the situation and the economy, and create a large number of refugees in Russia who may number 7-10 million people, which will also create internal tensions. In Ukraine, there was another problem: It wasn't just 3,463 who died in the fighting - in fact, more than 31,000 lost their lives."
Commenting further, the Russian minister said:
"According to the Ukrainian leadership, Kiev is preparing to resist Russian aggression. They do not know the most important secret: Russia has no plans and is not ready to carry out military aggression against Ukraine. But we warn that we will inflict a serious and adequate blow if there is a threat to the citizens of the Russian Federation and our territories."
Currently, official news outlets are reporting on the presence of Russian special forces in eastern Ukraine and on the appearance of Russian forward-operating military bases inside disputed territory in the east. So much for not getting involved.
A prophet's grave is often a myth.
Abraham, the Ur-prophet of all three monotheistic faiths, is said to be interred in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, in the West Bank, along with his sons Isaac and Jacob, and the wives of all three. The Hebrew Bible says that Moses died and was buried on Mount Nebo, in Jordan, forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land. Jesus, according to the New Testament, was interred in Jerusalem, in a cave near the site of the crucifixion. But there is no physical evidence for any of these burials, only the stories in the Holy Books.
The case of Islam's Prophet Mohammed (570-632 AD) is different. There are detailed histories of his life, and Mohammed's tomb in Medina (along with those of his family and early companions) has stood continuously since his death. The monumental al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque was constructed around the tomb, which sits on the site of Mohammed's home. Muslims around the world revere the place, and each year hundreds of thousands visit it as a side trip on the hajj pilgrimage to the black granite Ka'aba building in Mecca. The two cities, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia. Thus the Saudis are custodians of Islam's two holiest sites, and Saudi Arabia is the geographical center of Islam.
Now consider this astonishing but hardly-reported fact: Last year a 61-page proposal began circulating in Saudi elite circles about dismantling Mohammed's tomb and reburying the remains in an anonymous grave in a nearby cemetery. How could the Saudis even consider doing this? And what does this have to do with Islamic State's recent suicide bombings on Saudi territory?
The issue is written into the long history of Islam. The Saudi debate and the ISIS bombings are the most recent twist in an age-old conflict between Sunni and Shiite interpretations of the faith. Less well understood is the fact that it's also part of Islamic State's long-game strategy to delegitimize the Saudi regime as Islam's religious and geopolitical focal point, to create social chaos that ISIS could manipulate, and ultimately to overthrow the Saudi government and take its place.
The Islamic State's cause is a campaign against idolatry. Strict Sunni belief holds that because Allah is the One True God, unique and supreme, worship of any other god or human being - even of Mohammed himself - is idolatry (shirk). To revere Mohammed as Christians revere Jesus is a mortal sin, worthy of death. Mohammed himself said, "O people, if anyone worships Mohammed, Mohammed is dead. If anyone worships God, God is alive, immortal." In an act Muslims consider foundational, Mohammed went to the Ka'aba and smashed the effigies of various gods outside and paintings of pagan deities on the walls inside. Shite belief, by contrast, builds mosques dedicated to particular saints and reveres Mohammed's tomb and those of his family near, with a particular affinity for that of the prophet's daughter Fatima.
The Islamic State's bombings of Shiite mosques - and all the other violence ISIS has visited on Shia across the Middle East - is comprehensible within the frame of Islam's core internal conflict. The commercial and logistical extravaganza of allowing the hajj pilgrimage and worship at Mohammed's tomb creates a religious risk for the Saudis in that it legitimizes extremist Sunni jihad to oust them. If Mohammed's remains were buried in an anonymous grave, pilgrims couldn't worship there because they couldn't find the right grave. The Saudis could not be accused of idolatry.
Western media reporting of destruction of religious artifacts emphasizes the Islamic State's need for money to finance its operations. Thousands of stolen statues and other relics have been sold on the international collectors' black market. But others have been destroyed, pulverized with sledge hammers. The Islamic State's smashing of idols, in their view, follows the example set by Mohammed at the Ka'aba. Destruction of icons and Shiite mosques dedicated to religious saints (such as the mosque dedicated to Prophet Yunus, the Christian Jonah) is considered a sacred duty that has nothing to do with a nihilistic passion to destroy World Heritage sites. ISIS believes Islam's purification is advanced by smashing the holy sites of others - not only Shiites, but Christians, Druze, Yazidis, and more.
ISIS does hold a different attitude toward historical sites. When it seized the ancient city of Palmyra last May, it was feared the militants would destroy the ruins of the ancient city, as well as its religious artifacts. However, as reported in the New Yorker, an ISIS commander told a Syrian radio station that, "Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it. What we will do is pulverize the statues the miscreants used to pray to."
But destroying shrines is not an invention of ISIS, or even of Islam. God instructed the Israelites entering the Promised Land to "destroy all graven images and the high places" of the Canaanite indigenous population. The Protestant Reformation railed against the lavish adornment of Catholic cathedrals and churches. In politics it was the same: the French Revolutionary Jacobins stripped the power of the Catholic Church and seized its property. They finished the job with a symbolic war -cutting the heads off the saints adorning cathedral entrances, some of which can still be seen.
Nothing new here
Today's proposal to dismantle Mohammed's tomb is not the first. It has been considered several times throughout history. In the early 1800s, for example, a Saudi army conquered Medina and discussed dismantling the tomb, a plan that was greeted by outrage throughout the mainstream Muslim world. The tomb of Mohammed's first wife, Khadijah, actually was demolished, along with those of direct relations of Mohammed. In this regard, as in others, ISIS fits well within Islam's history of internal conflict - even as the immense majority of Muslims are indifferent or outraged.
The irony in this competitive fundamentalism is that the Saudis and the Islamic State are reading from the same book: that of Wahhabism, an 18th century Muslim thinker's ideology whose goal was to purify Islam by returning to the supposed golden age of the early decades after Mohammed's death. The Islamic State's leadership considers even the Wahhabist Saudis to be insufficiently purist, an accusation the Saudis must take seriously. From the staging of political history, it's an old story: extremists outflanked by even more extremist groups. This is what ISIS did to al-Qaeda, and what it ultimately intends to do to the Saudis. As for the fate of Islamic State: revolutions ultimately devour their children.
The United States turns inward. It happens every so often. There exists in this country an age-old compulsion toward isolationism that began with George Washington and re-emerges intermittently. "Mind your own business" is a most American expression.
President Barack Obama is moving in that direction. He came to power intent on ending the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which his country had become mired. He has almost achieved that (with the majority's applause, it should be said). America's enthusiasm for war is like a television series: it lasts 13 weeks.
According to a study published by the Heritage Foundation, when Obama leaves office, the U.S. Army will have barely 450,000 soldiers ready to fight, parceled in 30 combat brigades. It will continue to be the world's most important military force, probably invincible, but it will be 20 percent smaller than what it was when Obama became its commander in chief.
Obama wanted to close down the Guantanamo prison and, before ending his term, he will end up returning that military installation to Cuba's Castro brothers. His new Cuba policy consists of unilaterally eliminating any vestige of militant hostility toward the dictatorship, even if that means sacrificing Cuba's democrats. That means his abrogation of the "regime change" objective.
His accords with Iran are heading in the same direction. The White House doesn't mind weakening to exhaustion its relations with Israel, so long as it can cancel its conflicts with the ayatollahs. Nor is it excessively concerned that the Saudis, Egyptian, and Turks may end up developing a Sunni nuclear arsenal to counter the Shiite equivalent that Tehran will inevitably manufacture.
This isolationist tendency has deep roots in the self-perception of the U.S. ruling class. To the founding fathers, "the American people" were a society composed of peaceful people devoted to working in the fields and commerce. That was Thomas Jefferson's vision: a sweet rural Arcadia. He thought that his country should exert great international influence, but through the example of its republican virtues, not through force.
But there were other visions. The first half of the 19th Century saw the rise of the idealists, who were very much into the English political philosophy of the time. These Americans believed in the different nature of the United States, a different nation, chosen by Providence to improve human beings. The country was called to lead the world toward development, democracy, law and liberty.
In 1839, a journalist coined the expression Manifest Destiny. The nation ought to civilize the planet. That slogan served to justify the annexation of Texas and northern Mexico. It was also a matter of racial responsibility. The whites were to carry the load of that civilizing task. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote some verses defending the greatness of the conquest of the Spanish-held Philippines by the United States: "The White Man's Burden." Teddy Roosevelt considered it a bad poem but an excellent political alibi.
Shortly before, in 1893, American colonists allied to religious missionaries staged an unjustified but bloodless military coup against the very creative Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani, a writer and composer. President Grover Cleveland was horrified and refused to accept the coup. It fell to his successor, William McKinley, to incorporate the archipelago into the Union and grant U.S. citizenship to its inhabitants.
However, it wasn't until 1959, two years before Obama's birth, that Hawaii became the 50th state. I have always thought that the Hawaiian factor must have weighed heavily on the President's perception of his country's history and his own role within that narrative. What does a biracial Hawaiian, the son of a Kenyan, by way of Indonesia, have to do with John Adams or Andrew Jackson?
In Hawaii, someone is born and raised not celebrating the nation but rancorously commemorating the original imperialist sin. The territory is distant and different from the U.S. stereotype, the ethnic composition is different. Hawaii was untouched by slavery or the Civil War, and mixed-race marriages were commonplace. Until the raid on Pearl Harbor, it was a state without battles or glorious heroes, a land that preferred hula dancing to military marches.
Within those circumstances, it was predictable that Obama would tilt toward isolationism, as half the population is doing today. Of course, eventually the pendulum will swing to the opposite direction and other leaders will proclaim that the mission of the United States is to defend freedom worldwide -- as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy during the Cold War did.
Internationalism is not permanently worn out. It has only faded temporarily.
Today the Egyptian government officially inaugurated what has been dubbed "Suez Canal II," an extension of the original canal that will accommodate two-way traffic and more development and capital projects along the important shipping route. The canal upgrade was greeted with much fanfare, and was attended by the likes of French President Francois Hollande and North Korea's speaker of parliament, Kim Yong Nam.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has much riding on the new canal's success, as do the Egyptian investors who footed the lion's share of the project's $9 billion bill. The Egyptian economy has stumbled and staggered since the 2011 revolution, enduring two regime changes amid waves of protest, violence, political suppression, and now terrorism. Sissi -- the former general who seized power in a 2013 coup d'etat -- insists that other agreements reached earlier this year with foreign investors are finally being realized, but his government's GDP growth projections of 5 percent for 2015 have thus far fallen well short.
Moreover, there isn't much evidence that the Suez upgrade will result in the windfall of growth and gains promised by Sissi. The new canal route will likely reduce container ship travel times by just a few hours, and container shipping on the whole is in a kind of global glut. Other factors -- such as oil prices and the strength of the Chinese economy -- have a much greater effect on global trade than waterway access.
The coming months and years will make or break Sissi's government, which has been propped up by the largesse of Gulf monarchies and the United States. The Egyptian president's reputation -- which Sissi has worked diligently to craft both at home and in Washington -- is predicated on his ability to deliver stability and economic growth in Egypt. He has thus far failed at both.
This is bad news for a country with high youth unemployment and a failing education system. The regime has been under pressure from an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, and there's evidence to suggest that the group is pulling not only from the peninsula's marginalized Bedouin community, but from the disaffected across the country. Political persecution of Islamists has led to radicalization and an increasing predilection for violence among its youth, pushing a once vibrant political movement back out to the fringes.
In a Middle East consumed by conflict, the United States is once again counting on an Egyptian strongman to keep the largest Arab country in the world in line. Can he deliver?
Margaret Thatcher once said that Europe was created by history -- a simple observation with consequences as profound as they are unpredictable.
Indeed, Spain is getting set for its most unpredictable election in a generation. But before the country goes to the polls later this year, the northeastern region of Catalonia will hold a vote of its own in September. It's a one-issue election: After the introduction of a roadmap for Catalonian independence, the government officially announced yesterday that the candidates will serve as stand-ins for a vote on the pursuit of Catalonian statehood. Under the heading "Junts Pel Si" ("Together for Yes" in Catalan), the leading pro-independence parties will sell the idea to the region of 7.5 million, promising if elected to unilaterally begin the process of pursuing independence from Spain -- in obvious defiance of Madrid.
The plebiscitary election is, mildly put, legally awkward. So much so that Catalan First Minister Artur Mas made no mention of the poll's peculiar nature as he signed the decree for regional elections, which will take place on Sept. 27:
"Mr. Mas said that Catalans "are a nation of free people", with "the right to decide our future", and with "a horizon of hope"; he also spoke of his desire "for a better country" but stopped short of mentioning independence, secession, referendums or plebiscite, lest the central government in Madrid choose to present another legal challenge at the Constitutional Court."
So what is this election about, exactly? To Lluis Bassets, the vote is a cynical legacy-grab by Mas -- along with an attempt to appropriate the statehood issue to save the flagging political fortunes of his Convergencia i Unio Party. Xavier Vidal-Folch goes further still, advancing the not uncommon idea that a plebiscitary election is tantamount to a coup d'etat, not just against Spain, but against Catalan law, and against Catalans themselves.
Surface politics aside, here's where we circle back to (half of) Thatcher's quote. In Europe, affronts to historical identity can stir primordial, fast-moving reactions. There's not enough space here to run through the episode-by-episode evolution of the Catalan independence movement in the last 10 years. But, spurned by the courts and by the center-right government in Madrid on matters of autonomy and taxation rights, what pushed Catalans over the edge were the pretensions of the central government -- eventually codified in a rewritten, watered-down autonomy statute in 2010 -- to tell Catalans that, regardless of how they may feel, they are not a nation. What had been a legal negotiation on levels of autonomy and subsidiarity took on a different character. Unlike the referendum seen in Scotland last September, where the ambitions and drive of Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party culminated in a near-disaster for British unity, Mas found himself the recipient of a bottom-up call for independence -- one to which Madrid dares not give the legal sanction Westminster granted to the Scots.
Ham-fisted handling by the central government to be sure, and with the declaration of the Sept. 27 election, what was once a popular movement has become a clash of institutions within Spain. But the administration of Mariano Rajoy derives its own political benefits from countering the Catalans. With Rajoy's Partido Popular (PP) facing a potential collapse in support in the general election against Spain's political insurgents, it will bear watching whether the PP use the Catalan drive for autonomy to further their own agenda.
In the aftermath of the latest bailout deal for Greece, leading European politicians have said that the political integration of the European Union should move forward more quickly. Yet their ideas are a recipe for disaster further down the road. Before any decision is taken, the peoples of the European nations must be heard on exactly what kind of European Union they want.
"I've poked a fork in my eye, so now you, Greece, must do it too." This is the gist behind the opposition to the most recent Greek bailout, emanating from a broad range of eurozone nations. Baltic states and former members of the Eastern Bloc have been especially firm in opposing further help to the downtrodden Greeks.
These countries went through hard times of their own. They made deep budget cuts to get their house in order, throwing large swaths of their population into poverty. The cuts moved through successive governments, despite oftentimes tough opposition. Countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia are finally doing better. And the broadly shared sentiment, a kind of negative solidarity, is that Greece too must now swallow the bitter medicine.
It thus comes as no surprise that it was actually the Slovenian government that pressed EU leadership to draw up a Plan B for Greece, meaning to have them kicked from the eurozone, as The New York Times has been able to confirm.
To prevent further mishaps such as what has befallen Greece, the powerful German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, turned again to ideas he has long held for a new European authority -- an entity that would have competence over national budget policies. This would transfer budgetary powers to an empowered European Commission in Brussels.
In an interview with Le Monde, Bernard Coure of the governing council of the European Central Bank voiced similar ideas, proposing that, in essence, European leaders cut electoral ties to their domestic constituencies. In his view, this should make it easier for them to make decisions in the interest of European solidarity, and very likely against the interests and wishes of folks back home.
One could sum up these views as "enforcing solidarity from above." Neither Schauble nor Coure mentioned what should be obvious: that the peoples of the democracies that make up the European Union get to have a say in all this first. Without firm backing in the shape of a democratic mandate, their ideas -- if realized -- could have consequences that will in the long term endanger the entire European Union.
How democratic is it to have a European government that wasn't elected and so doesn't have a democratic mandate? The European Commission and the recently established office of the EU president (who is basically the chairman of the Council of Ministers) are hardly paragons of democracy, selected as they are by a process resembling in many ways the murky political games played when the Vatican's cardinals elect a new pope.
The one European institution that actually does have a democratic mandate -- the European Parliament -- hardly has real power. Whenever the issue of increasing the Parliament's power is raised, national governments and parties in most national parliaments balk. There is a reason for that: Most of their voters are against it.
The European Union is what it was always meant to be: a confederation of nation-states, with each nation pursuing its national interest. This is how the machine was built. For decades politicians of different political stripes sold the European Union project as an engine for prosperity. The message stuck.
Judging by the 2005 referendums on further European political integration in France and the Netherlands, which ended in a resounding ‘No', the current loose confederacy is exactly what most Europeans seem to want. Opinion polls and electoral research have over the years confirmed this, and the Greece conundrum has only hardened this stance. One might say that those who sold the European Union as that prosperity engine are reaping what they sowed.
If Europe's leaders want more solidarity between nations -- which in the end means the transfer of money from one national government to another -- then their first goal should be to convince the people of the long-term benefits.
Cutting the ties that bind politicians to their nations by itself will not suffice. Solidarity cannot be enforced; it is fostered with care and conviction. If it is solidarity they want, then Angela Merkel, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Wolfgang Schauble, the Slovenians, the Balts, all will first have to change their tune and their message to their respective electorates.
They should grow a pair and go to the people.
Rumors have been circulating in recent days that the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade -- a Syrian rebel group that gained notoriety in March 2013 when it kidnapped, and subsequently released, 21 Filipino UN workers -- is readying to declare its own emirate, or wilayat, in the Syrian city of Daraa, one of the group's strongholds.
The word emirate evokes all kinds of images and assumptions, but the motivations behind Yarmouk's potential push for autonomy may be rooted in very terrestrial and parochial interests. Although the Yarmouk Brigade has been rumored as having ties with the Islamic State group, the militant separatists have repeatedly denied such charges. Compounding the confusion is the fact that these accusations have been levied by Jaish al-Fatah, a Syrian rebel alliance with ties to al-Qaeda. The two factions have fought each other on the field of battle and in the court of law, and their disagreements are largely over matters of jurisprudence, affiliation, and religious interpretation.
None of this is likely to comfort to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. At times a darling of the Western world, U.S. ally Jordan already shares one volatile border with western Iraq, and the kingdom continues to reel from a video released by ISIS earlier this year depicting the immolation of a Jordanian pilot who had been taken captive by the jihadist group.
Touring the region in late July, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pledged American support for Jordan, and described the enemy its wary Arab allies face as barbarians at the proverbial gate.
"The enemy has to be defeated," said Carter, adding "[i]t will be, because the barbarians are always defeated by civilization, a few by the many."
But the Yarmouk Brigade is a good example of just how layered and complicated the war against the Islamic State group truly is. The militant group claims that it seized the 21 UN staffers back in 2013 because the relief workers were providing water to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and ultimately released those it detained once international pressure was applied. Moreover, the Yarmouk Brigade's origins stem from seemingly localized gripes and grievances, and their rhetoric lacks the millenarian flare often found in ISIS's missives.
All of this suggests that the Yarmouk Brigade might be, dare I say, rational. This is an enemy that can be negotiated with and quite possibly cleaved off from the Islamic State. That isn't quite as satisfying as vanquishing barbarians at the gate, but it may be a better alternative to Washington's current -- and at times incoherent -- strategy in Syria.
Some revolutions change humanity for better, some for the worse, but they all share this: You don't know they've started when you're in them. On August 1, 1981, Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the debut music video on the new Music Television Network, MTV. It was probably seen by less than 1,000 people that very day, but ask anyone under 50 now about music without video and you'll get a blank stare.
Likewise, for good or ill, police Body Worn Cameras, or BWCs, are here to stay. In the United States, racially tinged incidents of police-public interaction -- from Ferguson, to Baltimore, to South Carolina -- have generated a broad, bipartisan consensus that all police officers should wear BWCs. The Scott shooting video from South Carolina (recorded not on a BWC, but on a bystander's phone) suggests that BWCs could deter at least the worst police behavior. As the song says, pictures came and broke our hearts.
In the United Kingdom, we are already more accustomed to video surveillance than are people in the United States. But two incidents have increased the momentum for the wide deployment of BWCs: the 2003 killing, at the hands of police, of Charles de Menenzes, which is now being compared to the Walter Scott case by the European Court of Human Rights; and the plainly less tragic but more-discussed "plebgate" incident. BWCs can protect us from those meant to protect us.
Still, consensus does not equal risk-free virtue. Ubiquitous BWCs can enhance the administration of justice and the deterrence of bad behavior, by police and by civilians. But they also risk serious erosion of our privacy, civil liberties, and human rights, and, indeed, they put at risk our operation as free societies. Law enforcement agencies and their political masters must develop and implement policies, procedures, and technologies to maximize the benefits of BWCs and to mitigate the above-mentioned risks.
This needs to happen now, not after thousands of terabytes of video and audio are recorded, stored, processed, and used. By one estimate, a single American police officer recording all citizen contacts during a shift will generate 1.5 terabytes of data a year. Run the numbers for any decent-sized police force and you'll soon be into petabytes of BWC data, much of it recording the most private, intimate, and embarrassing moments we can experience: the aftermath of rape, domestic violence incidents, serious health crises and traumatic injuries to name a few.
So, first principles for any BWC deployment:
Broad deployment of BWCs will not be a panacea; nor will individual resultant recordings, in any particular case, depict the "whole truth." But better technology and more data in pursuit of finding the truth has historically led to greater justice. We believe this can happen with BWCs, if, but only if, those in power make hard decisions on at least the issues highlighted above, and sooner rather than later. If leaders fail to do so at the front end of the BWC revolution, the rights of many will be sacrificed.
Either way, this revolution will be televised.
Andy Langenkamp is a global policy analyst for ECR Research.
If we are to believe the financial markets, all is well in Europe. Stock exchanges are in an excellent mood, not just in the core, but also in the periphery of the eurozone and of the broader European Union. Credit spreads have remained largely stable between German government bonds -- Europe's benchmark -- and the weaker European economies. But are market prices correct? Do the markets put the right price on the impact of complex European politics, or are they blind to looming dangers?
The Greek saga has gnawed at the foundations of the eurozone and distressed European unity for quite some years now. One of the greatest risks it poses is in the further erosion it causes to Franco-German relations.
The European project was built along the Paris-Berlin axis from the start. France's political and military might and the German economic miracle created an equilibrium of sorts. Together, the countries formed a twin engine that drove the European integration process. German reunification threw the relationship off-balance to some degree, and that bond has since continued to deteriorate. For starters, France does not have a patch on Germany when it comes to economic performance. Further, the eastward expansion of the European Union has put Berlin at the Union's geographical heart, replacing Paris as Europe's crossroads. The credit crisis and its many ramifications have definitively put Germany on the map (not always voluntarily) as Europe's dominant power. It is almost regarded as a hegemon.
The Germans find this uncomfortable, and so does the rest of Europe. France's role as the other leading EU country is being steadily undermined as Germany calls the political (and economic) shots in Europe. More often than not, the orderly nature of Germany's economy is at odds with French flair, which creates tension. Not accidentally, French President Francois Hollande has been cast as the leader of the eurozone moderates, who agitate against German policies viewed as binding member states in economic straightjackets. France does not necessarily want to write off Greek debt. However, it was President Hollande, along with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who came to Greece's aid when the Germans went too far.
The Franco-German axis barely exists anymore. Undoubtedly, tensions will mount between Paris and Berlin in the years to come. The French are a proud people with memories of a time when they had a powerful empire. That time is gone, but the conduct of former President Charles De Gaulle and his successors within the European Union and its forerunners showed the power of its legacy. In essence, France still thinks of itself as a great power -- note how it retains a military presence in its former colonies. We do not think Paris will gracefully step aside and let Berlin lead the Continent now. Nor are many other countries that keen on German supremacy. In all likelihood, they will support France as it attempts to curb Berlin's accumulation of power.
European integration was meant to render Germany more European in character, and to prevent a return to the dark periods of the 20th century. Now, many fear that Europe is instead becoming more German. This clash will continue over the coming years. Berlin is not consciously striving for hegemony; Germany's ascendance seems nearly accidental. Whereas it is prepared to take the lead, it does not want to be seen as a bully that forces others to follow in its economic footsteps.
Right or wrong, many commentators think it is already too late. The Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole wrote: "What's the difference between the Mafia and the current European leadership? The Mafia makes you an offer you can't refuse. The leaders of the European Union offer you a deal you can neither refuse nor accept without destroying yourself.... Germany is first in a new Europe of unequals .... we are in a new EU now, one that has a dominant power at its centre and a single acceptable ideology."
The euro crisis has poisoned Germany's attitude towards Europe and Europe's attitude towards Germany. Germany's ascendant dominance, and the way Europe chooses to deal with it, is going to be one of the great drivers of or breaks on the European project in the years to come.
What if Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras willfully sought to cave in to Greece's creditors?
However extravagant it appears at first read, this hypothesis is the only one that can give coherence to a chain of otherwise disparate, contradictory decisions taken by Athens - decisions that brought the Greek economy to the brink of paralysis.
On June 26, Tsipras refused to stamp his signature on a program of reforms negotiated with Greece's official creditors that seemed to be a done deal. He then convened a referendum (held on July 5) and called upon his fellow citizens to reject those reforms by voting no. Yet, when the no vote won, he switched tack and put forward to Greece's creditors proposals which largely mirrored those that Greeks, upon his recommendation, had voted against. Finally, on July 13 he accepted a still-harsher set of reforms that Greece's eurozone partners had presented him as a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
All these prevarications have nurtured the belief that Greece's prime minister awkwardly misplayed his cards - that perhaps he didn't even know what cards he held.
Looked at more carefully, however, Tsipras's brinkmanship may have responded to, and succeeded in securing, a different, somewhat hidden objective, namely: to loosen the grip that his radical-left party, Syriza, held on his government and on himself and, by that token, to be in a position to come to terms with his country's creditors despite the efforts of Syriza hardliners.
To ascertain how stifling Syriza's hold on the Greek government had become, it is worthwhile to recall the circumstances under which the June 26 meeting between Tsipras and the three institutions that represent Greece's creditors (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) ended in deadlock.
On that occasion, after several hours of intense negotiations, and at a moment when Tsipras appeared ready to accept a set of proposals made by the creditors, he - as reported by the Financial Times - left the room to consult with the advisers from his party who had come with him to Brussels. A few minutes later Tsipras came back with new proposals and modifications to the painfully-negotiated text.
Exasperated by this last-minute pirouette, the heads of the creditors' institutions decided to call off the meeting.
Once back in Greece, Tsipras broadcast his decision to convene a referendum on the proposals put forward by the institutions, and immediately took the side in favor of the no vote.
Tsipras' last-minute turnaround at the June 26 meeting in Brussels could only be explained by pressures from the party advisers standing outside the negotiations room. After consulting them, he fretted about being disavowed by his party should he give a formal go-ahead to that reform package.
At that point, Tsipras must have realized that the only way to secure a meaningful negotiating space for himself was to emancipate himself from party control. This was all the more necessary since he knew, after six months in government, that persistence in the standoff with Greece's creditors - which Syriza's hardliners and his finance minister at the time, Yanis Varoufakis, were advocating - would only lead to Greece's economic collapse.
Indeed, the confrontational stance taken to that point had shackled Greece with uncertainties and financial constraints that were at the source of the country's shrinking tax receipts, bank runs, liquidity shortages and capital controls.
For Tsipras, therefore, it was urgent to change tack.
But then, how to attain that goal? Would he dare propose reforms that would contradict his electoral promises? No way; his party was strong enough to stop him from turning about.
Tsipras had only one workable option: to give the impression that a change of course had become unavoidable, even though he himself was against it - hence his leading the no camp at the July 5 referendum.
That referendum, and the victory of the no vote, considerably enhanced Tsipras's public image. From then on, he was not merely the leading candidate that Syriza had successfully presented at the January Parliamentary elections - obtaining 36.5 percent of the votes. He was now the prime minister who had thrown his political weight behind the no camp and earned the support of 61.5 percent of his fellow citizens.
After that political victory, Tsipras was in a position to make his own decisions - his political party no longer held him on a leash. It was then, and not before, that he could depart from Syriza's hardline stances and propose, as he actually did, reforms almost identical to those he had been pushed to refuse in the June 26 meeting with creditors.
True, when he arrived in Brussels to attend the July 12 eurozone summit, Tsipras was not expecting to be confronted with a still harsher reform package. All the same, he was already set to compromise - as evidenced by the concessions he brought with him.
Thus, once in Brussels, and realizing that his eurozone partners were in no mood to backtrack, Tsipras preferred to capitulate rather than to walk away one more time. He argued afterward, during an interview on Greek state television, that he had signed a text he didn't believe in, only "to avoid a disaster for the country."
The gambit paid off: Seventy-two percent of Greeks deemed that the Brussels agreement was necessary.
Distinct proof that capitulation was a matter of choice, rather than of necessity, lies in the fact that Tsipras's former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, had prepared a secret plan B, involving the creation of a parallel payments scheme aimed at coping with Greece's eventual exit from the euro. Tsipras, however, preferred to appease Greece's creditors and asked Varoufakis to step down.
By disentangling himself from Syriza hardliners and from his former finance minister, Alexis Tsipras has managed to become Greece's indispensable player. As showed by his sparkling 60 percent approval rating, a majority of Greeks have come to believe that no one could represent and defend their interests more forcefully and effectively than Tsipras. Greece's creditors, for their part, will hardly find someone better suited than Tsipras to persuade that country's population and bureaucracy, albeit grudgingly, of the need to undertake profound economic and institutional reforms.
It remains to be seen whether Tsipras can deliver the reforms that Greece so badly needs.
The Western press has offered plenty of commentary on Russia's so-called "little green men" -- special forces and intelligence units that helped take over Crimea in 2014 and are rumored to be assisting Ukrainian rebels in the Donbas region. Russian daily Krasnaya Zveda (Red Star) -- the official publication of the Russian Defense Ministry -- gave its readers a look at the inside operations of these units. The publication looked specifically at the training and background of the Black Sea intelligence and special operations battalion, whose job it is to operate deep behind enemy lines. Since special forces are now celebrated across Russia as a key force-projection element following events in Ukraine, the account is obviously flattering to the Russian military. However, certain training elements described here are prevalent in most militaries that aspire to field professional and effective special forces. So how do Russians wish to see their "green men," and what kind of training do they go through?
What makes a Green Man
The paper interviews several special forces officers, starting with Col. Sergei Chudin, the battalion commander. According to Red Star, the battalion requires the most stringent requirements for the physical, intellectual, and moral standing of its members. Chudin, with combat experience in two Chechen campaigns, describes such requirements as follows: "Nobody should see and hear our scouts, while they see and hears everything, so our soldier is first and foremost an intellectual. Physical indicators are secondary, and we can help potential candidates who suit us with wit and spirit build muscle." According to Chudin, constant hiking, cross-country races, classes on tactics, and daily and nightly shooting exercises gradually transform his soldiers into the military's most effective fighting units, a real elite intelligence force.
"A professional differs from an amateur by a fraction of a second," says Chudin to his troops. "An amateur and a professional can perform the same tasks, but a professional is always a little faster. A bullet from an AK-74 travels 90 meters (300 feet) in a tenth of a second, and this tenth of a second often allows for a win." According to the paper, this invaluable extra time is gained only after grueling workouts and step-by-step evaluation of each scout's actions - constant preparation is essential. This battalion regularly trains in the Daryale (North Ossetia) and Botlikh (Dagestan) centers, located in the Russian Southern Military District, and mountain training is part of the regimen. "The mountain training that our soldiers receive at Daryale can be effectively combined with reconnaissance activities in forested mountainous terrain," said Chudin. "Crimea offers ideal conditions for both types of action -- the skills we picked up in North Ossetia are successfully improved here on the Crimean peninsula."
Capt. Alexander Khovanskii's airborne reconnaissance company just returned from a two-month trip, during which it performed the tasks assigned by the Southern Military District command. Red Star could not learn the details of their operation, but quoted scouts who said they were "happy...that their work was completed from start to finish." According to Khovanskii, his troops will depart for a holiday, "nicely complemented by considerable cash payments, plus 60 percent of salary for each month spent in the field, as well as monetary compensation for unused vacation days." Red Star notes that such monetary compensation is "worthy materiel support and a nice addition to a sense of accomplishment by military contractors."
Capt. Dmitry Betov is commanding the airborne reconnaissance platoon, preferring to work "in the field" rather than on base. "When I first joined the team, I was treated with suspicion, " says Betov. "Before, I served in the Ukrainian military, and secondly, intelligence scouts did not immediately accept a new man in their ranks. I immediately put the platoon through rigid statutory conditions and began to build its work on the principle of ‘do as I do.' Seeing that I was doing everything myself that I required of my subordinates, the scouts stopped treating me with suspicion. But when they realized that I can teach them something new and do it with pleasure, they finally accepted me."
According to Red Star, time spent in the field brings solders together much better than during a feast, and a 30-kilometer (20-mile) march makes people find common ground much faster than during many hours of conversation. Betov found such common ground with his fellow soldiers, since he speaks the same professional language due to his service with Ukrainian Naval commandos, in the 29th Maritime Intelligence section of the Ukrainian Navy. "My platoon engaged in a variety of exercises, trained for ‘inversion of the bag' maneuver to counter ‘hammer and anvil' principles used in the U.S. Army to counter special forces," says Betov. "We worked through the techniques used by SAS - British special forces - which I learned while serving in the Ukrainian Navy."
Betov's description of his experience presents a dilemma for Ukrainian forces -- and further afield, considering recently announced joint training with the U.S. military -- how to ensure that proprietary tactics, techniques, and procedures that were once part of Ukrainian special forces' and paramilitary units' operations are not used against Kiev by former Ukrainians who fled to Russia. Over the past year, there have been a number of reports of Ukrainian soldiers deserting to Russia, refusing to take part in military actions against pro-Russian rebel forces in the Donbas. Though the exact numbers of such desertions may be difficult to verify independently, the fact remains that Russian forces are using their hybrid warfare experience in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to strengthen their power projection in the former Soviet space. How the recently announced training of select Ukrainian units by American servicemen addresses this issue remains to be seen.