Thursday, November 19, 2015

Twenty-Five Days to Save the World

Paris was attacked by terrorists, and the goals of the upcoming Paris climate conference attacked by the response--at least from those who wish to derail climate action anyway.  Fortunately, supporters of climate action have not backed down--and have made the case again and again that the climate crisis threatens humanity.

Trying to exploit the visceral response to an horrific terrorist attack is only one tactic being employed, as the time for the conference draws closer.  Congressional Republicans are engaged in McCarthyite tactics against climate scientists, while--in the words of the New York Times article--"The Senate voted on Tuesday to block President Obama’s tough new climate change regulations, hoping to undermine his negotiating authority before a major international climate summit meeting in Paris this month."

It's political grandstanding, since there were not nearly enough votes to override the President's veto, which is a certainty if the bill passed both houses.  The opposition has played the politics of perception before successfully, and it's all they've got now.  But this time there is much stronger public support, and much less media timidity.

Meanwhile as widely reported (but in the words of Jeff Masters at Weather Underground): October 2015 was Earth’s warmest month on record by a huge margin, according to data released by NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Wednesday. October 2015 was the second consecutive month with a new all-time warmest month record: September 2015 previously held the record for the largest positive departure of temperature from average of any month among all 1630 months in the historical record that began in January 1880. 

 October 2015's warmth makes the year-to-date period (January - October) the warmest such period on record, according to both NOAA and NASA. October 2015 was the sixth consecutive month a monthly high temperature record has been set in NOAA's database, and the eighth month of the ten months so far in 2015. "

Apart from global heating itself, a contributing factor is the very strong El Nino, and it's likely to add even more in coming months.  From the Weather Underground El Nino report:

Weekly Update (November 16, 2015):
The weekly sea surface temperature reading, taken within the Niño 3.4 region near the equator, has risen to 3.0°C above average. This is the highest weekly value observed during any El Niño event in NOAA’s records. This week’s reading beats the highest weekly departure of 2.8°C recorded in late November 1997 during the record-setting 1997-98 El Niño. In a news release issued on Monday, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Center warned that “this naturally occurring El Niño event and human induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced.” 

War on Everyone

ISIL planted a bomb on a Russian civilian airliner, killing everyone aboard, which Russia finally acknowledged this week.  ISIL was behind the gun and bomb attacks in Paris that killed 129 and injured hundreds.  On Wednesday, ISIL bragged about bringing down the Russian airliner, threatened the U.S. including New York (as they had previously threatened Washington), and beheaded two hostages, one Norwegian and the other Chinese.

So ISIL has very quickly made direct enemies of France and Russia, and now China, and threatened the U.S.  France has declared war on ISIL, though perhaps not formally yet.  Russia has vowed vengeance, and now so has China. 

This kind of thing didn't happen in the 20th century or even earlier in this century. Before this, even a terrorist group would try to play off one major power against another, or divide them in some way, or at least seek an ally willing to provide funds, arms and safe havens to befuddle their adversaries, or just their competition.

ISIL is not doing that. Already the enemy of a number of countries in the Middle East, ISIL seems to be waging war on the nation state itself.  If not the concept, then the nation states as currently organized.  But for all intents and purposes: the nation state.

This takes what has been dubbed asymmetric warfare to its logical conclusion.  ISIL's most potent symbol so far is the soda can bomb which it claims brought down the Russian airliner.

Meanwhile, the President of France is declaring total war, vowing to eradicate ISIL.  But reports so far suggest that France's only international action, its air strikes, have not been very effective.  Same with Russian air strikes, which seem to kill as many civilians and ISIL's enemies as they do ISIL fighters.

ISIL seems to be trying to exploit the weakness of the nation state, which is political.  Nations can protect their citizens, though not absolutely.  Most analysts believe that for example the U.S. is pretty well protected against ISIL attacks--see here and here and here and here-- but since 9/11 the terrorist's greatest weapon is the suicide attack, so it is always possible.  Otherwise, domestic gun massacres have killed far more Americans than terrorists, especially if 9/11 is excepted.

But nations cannot tolerate the political cost of being shown up and terrorized. Anger and fear are natural, but politicians feed hysteria, they bluster and turn against each other.  National unity is weakened or exposed as a house of cards.  Or conversely, a virtual dictatorship is the source of temporary unity, often engaging in suicidal violence.

Russia has vowed vengeance, China has vowed justice, and France has vowed eradication.  Depending on how those terms are defined, Russia and China have a shot. France has little chance.  ISIL can invite their violent ire because it doesn't care how many innocent people get killed when it is attacked.  Innocent death is another recruiting tool.  Meanwhile, they have inspired bluster and the appearance of impotence from nation states who have no model for fighting them.

The only leader so far who has spoken the grim reality is President Obama (as Ryan Lizza noted in the New Yorker.)  In his press conference, after describing all that the U.S. has done in counter-terrorism and diplomacy, etc. he said:

 " And keep in mind that we have the finest military in the world and we have the finest military minds in the world, and I’ve been meeting with them intensively for years now, discussing these various options, and it is not just my view but the view of my closest military and civilian advisors that that would be a mistake -- not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is, if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface -- unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.

And let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist network that’s operating anywhere else -- in North Africa, or in Southeast Asia?

So a strategy has to be one that can be sustained. And the strategy that we’re pursuing, which focuses on going after targets, limiting wherever possible the capabilities of ISIL on the ground -- systematically going after their leadership, their infrastructure, strengthening Shia -- or strengthening Syrian and Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces that are prepared to fight them, cutting off their borders and squeezing the space in which they can operate until ultimately we’re able to defeat them -- that’s the strategy we’re going to have to pursue."

It's important to note that ISIL's war on the nation state is not its primary goal.  ISIL is at war with everyone and everything that isn't ISIL.  It wars against other terrorist groups (as its lethal attacks recently in Lebanon) and specifically other religions as well as other sects.  In its destruction of ancient monuments, it is at war with the past and with cultures it hasn't invented.

With several of its known leaders killed in recent weeks, it's not clear if this latest flurry is a sign of strength or desperation.  But at the moment, ISIL has the nation state flailing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Modest Request

In the interests of keeping language alive and useful, I have a request for my millions of avid readers.  For the rest of this week at least, let's all try to avoid just one cliche overused to the point of madness.  Do you think it's possible?

Let's start with this one:

Wake up call.

Those of us old enough to have ever had an actual wake up call might lead the way.

We might even try to think of what we actually mean when we use that phrase, because it is almost never what that phrase means.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Republican Holy War

Update: President Obama in a press conference Tuesday: 
"We are not well served when in response to a terrorist attack we descend into fear and panic...We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks."
Of Republican candidates:
"They've been playing on fear to score political points or to advance their campaigns and it's irresponsible. It needs to stop because the world is watching," Obama said."I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate." 

Jonathan Chiat's column today casts the despicable and predictable Republican response to the Paris terror attack in a bright if frightening light: nearly everything their leaders are saying are exactly what ISIL/ISIS/ Islamic State and the jihadists want them to say--exactly what will provide them with more power and troops.

Republicans are promoting a holy war of us (white Christian rabid right Republicans) against them (the entire Islamic world.)  It's the mirror image of ISIS, engaged in a holy war of them (a minority with a twisted interpretation of Islam) against us (everyone else, including most of the Muslim world.)

The stakes in defining this conflict could not be higher.  Chiat writes:

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, believes in defining the conflict in the most narrow terms. There is a very good reason for this. The United States is not actually at war with Islam. Non-extremist Muslims account for the lion's share of the victims of jihadist terror, and are needed as allies in the conflict.

 Air strikes and counterterrorism may be important tools against ISIS, but in the long run, we need non-radicals to maintain the loyalties of the majority of the Muslim world. If the Muslim world gravitates toward its most extreme elements, the West will find itself in an unwinnable struggle against an enemy that can generate fighters moving invisibly among 1.6 billion people worldwide. 

The radicals want to persuade the rest of the Muslims that they represent Islam writ large in a clash against Christians and Jews. The West’s strategy is predicated on breaking down this link, making it as hard as possible for them to claim that the West is at war with Islam as a whole."

In this context, it's worth noting this, from an evaluation of terrorist threats to the U.S.:"And Daniel Byman, a Brookings Institution analyst, noted in an interview that many such plots since the attacks of September 11, 2001 have been disrupted because of tips from American Muslims."

The most extreme elements of the religious right have long had this twisted mirror agenda of holy war, as it fulfills what they believe is the prophesy--for the end of the world, which of course only they will survive in clouds of glory.

Republicans were falling over each other to see who could be more extreme in their response.  Marco Rubio won--he endorsed this holy war.  But Jeb Bush wasn't far behind--he proposed that America accept only Christian refugees.

At a news conference at the G20 conference, President Obama was blunt and passionate: Without naming him, Mr. Obama singled out a comment by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, one of the Republicans seeking to succeed him, for suggesting the United States focus special attention on Christian refugees. “That’s shameful,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s not American. It’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

He denounced ISIL as "the face of evil" but refused to be terrorized into overestimating its strength in the Paris attacks:
“If you have a handful of people who don’t mind dying, they can kill a lot of people,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s one of the challenges of terrorism. It’s not their sophistication or the particular weaponry that they possess. But it is the ideology they carry with them and their willingness to die.”

He noted that he has used force (often to criticism) but insisted on maintaining a sane pragmatism in word as well as deed.  Not only does ignorant bluster play into the hands of terrorists who recruit members on the basis of a holy war, it is the talk of irresponsible people who fortunately for the moment don't have responsibilities to actually respond.  The Times report concludes:

But he said he would not be pressured into “posing” as a tough president by doing things that will not make the situation better to satisfy his critics.

Some of them seem to think that if I was just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference,” he said. “Because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough."

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Thousands of words have already been written and said responding to the terrorist attacks in Paris, for which the group known as ISIL and a half dozen other names has claimed responsibility.

But going forward, I find this essay in Newsweek to be the most sensible and comprehensive.

Despite whatever historical precedents and causes, or more recent policies and outcome that might have contributed, there appear to be two new elements in this attack.  First, that ISIL is engaging in terrorist attacks outside the Middle Eastern territories it claims for itself.  Second, the nature of those attacks--small arms used in unguarded public places to maximize casualties--so-called soft targets.

The sensible response is to quickly develop and/or deploy strategies to deal with these changes. This may well involve public debate over policies and proposals, but as Kurt Eichenwald notes, strength lies in unity.  He notes that terrorists closely observe political responses, and suggests that making the terrorist attacks in the Benghazi a partisan political issue, especially without foundation, conveys an inability to seriously develop and deploy a unified response.

The difference is the political attacks that tend to de-legitimize the national leadership, adding to confusion and fear.  Sure enough, as he points out, rabid right Republicans were quick to do so, attacking President Obama for what happened in France.

But according to news reports, the nature of attacks by two of the Democratic candidates against the frontrunner in Saturday's debate were too close to being of the same type.  Instead of discussing the way forward for the nation, there were attacks on past votes and policies.  At this moment, when Americans are looking for leadership, such attacks are dispiriting and inappropriate.  Disagree with proposals for action, certainly.  But political sniping misreads the moment and damages everyone.

This is especially true when everyone knows that Secretary Clinton is the person most likely to be elected President of the United States in a year's time.  It's not that she can't be politically opposed.  But it is her proposals that are to be debated, and the proposals of others, especially on the response to terrorist acts and threats.
We need that level of focus and seriousness, particularly when the Republican candidates' "proposals" vary from ignorant bluster to more sophisticated warmongering.

Senator Sanders was certainly correct, however mockingly the question was meant, that the climate crisis is the most serious problem facing the world, in part because it is a source of conflict and chaos that leads to war and terrorism, including much that is going on right now.  That needs to be kept in mind, because this terrorist act does not diminish the urgency for what nations will gather to do in a few weeks, in Paris.