Saturday, August 30, 2014

Iraqi Kurds Expand Autonomy as ISIS Reorders the Landscape


WASHINGTON — The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has thrown Iraq into crisis, precipitated the ouster of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister and brought the American military back to the country it left more than two years ago.
But now Obama administration officials are quietly acknowledging another important consequence: a far more autonomous Kurdistan.
The United States still officially opposes Kurdish independence, a decades-old policy that seeks to avoid further inflaming the region and provoking Turkey, Iraq and Iran, three countries with large and restive Kurdish minorities.
But the ISIS invasion has fundamentally changed the political geography of Iraq, senior American and Kurdish officials said, physically cutting off most of Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Shiite-dominated Iraq and encouraging the Iraqi Kurds in their drive for expanded autonomy.

(More here.)

Brutal Rise of Islamic State Turns Old Enemies Into New Friends

Nations Long at Loggerheads, Such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Find Common Ground in Bid to Curb Extremists

Aug. 29, 2014 7:41 p.m. ET
 
In the brutal calculation of Middle East politics, the baseline for friendship has always been simple: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

By that standard, the Islamic State extremist group is creating friendships aplenty. An odd set of bedfellows or potential bedfellows, transcending geographical, ideological and alliance bounds, is emerging from the ranks of those threatened by what many see as the most dangerous militant movement in a generation.

Fear over the spread of Islamic State means parties often at odds now share a common enemy.
Shiite Muslim Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, for instance, have been bitter foes since at least 1979, when the Iranian revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hoped to inspire similar revolutions in the Sunni world. But both countries now fear Islamic State's armed radical Islamist movement, which seeks to usurp their own claimed leadership of the Muslim world.

That led Iran and Saudi Arabia to independently back the same candidate to lead Iraq, in a push for a new government that might unite Sunnis and Shiites to battle Islamic State. This week, Iranian and Saudi diplomats held a rare meeting to consult.

EU Expected to Toughen Sanctions on Russia

European Commission President Barroso and French President Hollande Comment Ahead of Brussels Meeting


European Union leaders will agree to new sanctions on Russia, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and French President François Hollande said on Saturday, amid the deepening crisis in Ukraine.
"I expect the leaders of the European Union member states…to be ready for a new round of sanctions following the recent escalation and further destabilization of Ukraine. That's what they have said and that's what I expect them to do," Mr. Barroso said after a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Mr. Hollande also said that probable incursions by Russian troops inside Ukraine will "no doubt" lead the EU to slap a new round of sanctions on Moscow.
EU leaders are meeting Saturday afternoon to agree their picks for two top EU jobs and to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and other foreign policy issues. Mr. Poroshenko will join that meeting. On the agenda will be the possibility of imposing a fresh round of sanctions on Russia, broadening the measures the bloc imposed in July.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Henry Kissinger on the Assembly of a New World Order

The concept that has underpinned the modern geopolitical era is in crisis


Libya is in civil war, fundamentalist armies are building a self-declared caliphate across Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan's young democracy is on the verge of paralysis. To these troubles are added a resurgence of tensions with Russia and a relationship with China divided between pledges of cooperation and public recrimination. The concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis.

The search for world order has long been defined almost exclusively by the concepts of Western societies. In the decades following World War II, the U.S.—strengthened in its economy and national confidence—began to take up the torch of international leadership and added a new dimension. A nation founded explicitly on an idea of free and representative governance, the U.S. identified its own rise with the spread of liberty and democracy and credited these forces with an ability to achieve just and lasting peace. The traditional European approach to order had viewed peoples and states as inherently competitive; to constrain the effects of their clashing ambitions, it relied on a balance of power and a concert of enlightened statesmen. The prevalent American view considered people inherently reasonable and inclined toward peaceful compromise and common sense; the spread of democracy was therefore the overarching goal for international order. Free markets would uplift individuals, enrich societies and substitute economic interdependence for traditional international rivalries. 

This effort to establish world order has in many ways come to fruition. A plethora of independent sovereign states govern most of the world's territory. The spread of democracy and participatory governance has become a shared aspiration if not a universal reality; global communications and financial networks operate in real time.
The years from perhaps 1948 to the turn of the century marked a brief moment in human history when one could speak of an incipient global world order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional European concepts of statehood and balance of power. But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order. These reservations are now becoming explicit, for example, in the Ukraine crisis and the South China Sea. The order established and proclaimed by the West stands at a turning point. 

War in Europe is not a hysterical idea


Columnist August 29 at 12:20 PM, WashPost
Over and over again — throughout the entirety of my adult life, or so it feels — I have been shown Polish photographs from the beautiful summer of 1939: The children playing in the sunshine, the fashionable women on Krakow streets. I have even seen a picture of a family wedding that took place in June 1939, in the garden of a Polish country house I now own. All of these pictures convey a sense of doom, for we know what happened next. September 1939 brought invasion from both east and west, occupation, chaos, destruction, genocide. Most of the people who attended that June wedding were soon dead or in exile. None of them ever returned to the house.

In retrospect, all of them now look naive. Instead of celebrating weddings, they should have dropped everything, mobilized, prepared for total war while it was still possible. And now I have to ask: Should Ukrainians, in the summer of 2014, do the same? Should central Europeans join them?
I realize that this question sounds hysterical, a

Six Strategies Obama Could Use to Fight the Islamic State

The president says he doesn’t have a plan yet. So we asked defense bigwigs for some ideas.

After a summer in which Islamic State militants have rampaged through Iraq and Syria, declared an Islamic caliphate, recruited extremists from abroad and claimed credit for decapitating American journalist James Foley, President Obama vowed earlier this week that “justice will be done” to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or simply the Islamic State—a group that Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey have called an “imminent threat” to the United States with an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”

But the president has long resisted getting “dragged back into another ground war in Iraq,” as he recently reiterated, and in a White House press conference on Thursday, he made clear he has not yet made up his mind about how exactly to counter the terrorist group, aside from dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to talk with other countries in the region and tasking Hagel and Dempsey to “prepare a range of options.” Asked whether he would get approval from Congress before potentially going into Syria, Obama said it would depend what kind of intervention, if any, the United States pursues: “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he admitted.

While the president deliberates, we at Politico Magazine decided to ask for some suggestions, and so went to some of the country’s top defense thinkers—hailing from the military brass to the Pentagon to Congress. Here’s what they think Obama’s strategy should look like.


(More here.)

How to Stop Putin’s War in Ukraine


The bloody crisis in Ukraine has entered a new phase, with regular Russian military forces now apparently fighting in the country’s rebel-held east. Although the elements of a possible political settlement are visible, so far, the Kremlin has shown little interest in de-escalating the conflict. Instead, at every turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin has met Western sanctions and opprobrium with fresh violence. Let’s admit it: The West’s current strategy isn’t working. It’s time for new steps designed to encourage Moscow to change course.

Putin met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Belarus on Aug. 26. Apparently the meeting did not go well. Ukrainian sources initially reported agreement on securing control of the Ukraine-Russia border and a prisoner release, but Russian sources gave a more downbeat assessment. For his part, Putin denied that Moscow had any role to play in achieving a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine—holding to the increasingly unsustainable fiction that Russia is not involved in the fighting.
With little tangible having emerged from Minsk, and with growing evidence of Russian forces bolstering the rebels, the sides seem set for more continued fighting.

On Thursday, Poroshenko told Ukrainians not to “panic” at Putin’s escalation, but he is clearly concerned: He does not want a new “frozen conflict” to emerge in eastern Ukraine. His military has displayed increasing competence the past two months, pushing back the separatists and Russian fighters in their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. In doing so, he enjoys solid backing from the Ukrainian populace, which has rallied in the face of Russian aggression.


(More here.)

Where are the marches against the Islamic State?


August 29 at 10:33 AM, WashPost

Yasmine Bahrani is a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai.
 
This summer, many Muslims marched in the streets of London, Paris and other cities to condemn the deaths of Gazans at the hands of Israel. Of course it makes sense to protest the bombing of schools and residential buildings. I marched in the streets against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon when I was a student, and I marched against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But, inexplicably, there have been no similarly large-scale demonstrations against the Islamic State for its horrific acts against Christians, Yazidis and even its fellow Muslims in Iraq and Syria. And there certainly haven’t been any marches protesting the beheading of innocents. It’s not hard to organize a march. So where are the demonstrations?

This is not the first time this question has occurred to me. For years, I have wondered about this absence of public outrage. When I asked about the murder of Iraqi civilians by Sunni and Shiite gangs, my fellow Muslims dodged my questions: “Why did the United States invade Iraq in the first place?” Yes, the U.S. invasion was a mistake. But why is it so hard to take a stand against the killing of women and children? I never got a straight answer.

To be sure, many Muslims have spoken out against the Islamic State, and some clerics have condemned this gang of terrorists; Qatar-based Islamic scholar Yusuf Qaradawi, for instance, said the Islamic State violates sharia law and declared “null and void” the group’s declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But their words merely echoed those of non-Muslims who have called for an end to the violence. Surely we can do better. Don’t Muslims have a responsibility to speak out more loudly than others? We need the world to see anti-Islamic State marchers taking to the streets with the passion that we saw at the Gaza rallies in London and Paris. Mainstream Muslims must express our rejection of extremism in clear terms, while doing whatever we can to stop young people from radicalizing.

(More here.)

Putin Keeps Pushing West Over Ukraine

Russia Seems Certain It Is More Determined In Its Goals Than U.S., Europe

By Gregory L. White and Alan Cullison, WSJ
Updated Aug. 28, 2014 5:46 p.m. ET

MOSCOW—Steadily ratcheting up Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin seems to be betting that keeping that former Soviet republic in Russia's sphere of influence is much more important to Moscow than pulling Kiev westward is to the U.S. and its European allies.

But while the U.S. and Europe have ruled out any direct military intervention to defend Ukraine, Moscow's moves this week to send hundreds of its own troops there to fight alongside pro-Russia separatists represent a risky new escalation.

"Putin is behaving more and more unpredictably," said Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow political consultancy. "What was impossible to imagine even as a nightmare scenario just a year ago—Russian and Ukrainian soldiers fighting each other on the battlefield—already appears to be happening."

Moscow denies that any of its troops are fighting in Ukraine, with officials saying the handful that Ukrainian forces have captured in recent days were there "by accident."

(More here.)

EU Ministers Urge Further Pressure on Russia Over Ukraine

Comments Come a Day Ahead of EU Summit to Discuss Ukraine Conflict

By Laurence Norman, WSJ
Aug. 29, 2014 9:35 a.m. ET

Russia's actions in Ukraine amount to an "invasion" of the country, the Swedish and Lithuanian foreign ministers said Friday, as a number of senior European Union diplomats called for pressure on Moscow to be stepped up.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Italy, a day ahead of a summit of EU leaders that will discuss the situation in Ukraine, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said it is clear there are several battalions of the Russian armyoperating offensively in Ukraine "for the second time this year."

"The heads of state and government tomorrow will obviously have to deal with the situation and I assume that sanctions are going to be on the table," he said, adding that this is "the second Russian invasion of Ukraine within the year."

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said it is time for the EU to consider offering military support to Ukraine, in addition to stepping up sanctions against Moscow.

(More here.)

The Extreme Partisanship of John Roberts's Supreme Court

Like Barack Obama, the chief justice came into office promising an age of apolitical comity. And like the president, he has seen his dream die.

Garrett Epps Aug 27 2014, 12:01 PM ET, The Atlantic

“Politics are closely divided,” John Roberts told scholar Jeffrey Rosen after his first term as chief justice. “The same with the Congress. There ought to be some sense of some stability, if the government is not going to polarize completely. It’s a high priority to keep any kind of partisan divide out of the judiciary as well.”

No one who observes the chief justice would doubt he was sincere in his wish for greater unanimity, greater judicial modesty, a widely respected Supreme Court quietly calling “balls and strikes.” But human beings are capable of wishing for mutually incompatible things—commitment and freedom, for example, or safety and excitement. In his desire for harmony, acclaim, and legitimate hegemony, the chief was fighting himself. As he enters his 10th term, his quest for a non-partisan Court seems in retrospect like the impossible dream.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 term began with oral argument in a divisive, highly political case about campaign finance and concluded with two 5-4 decisions of divisive, highly political cases, one about public-employee unions and the other about contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In all three cases, the result furthered a high-profile objective of the Republican Party. In all three cases, the voting precisely followed the partisan makeup of the Court, with the five Republican appointees voting one way and the four Democratic appointees bitterly dissenting. In all three cases, the chief voted with the hard-right position. By the end of the term, the polarization Roberts had seen in the nation had clearly spread to the Court. In fact, the clerk’s final gavel on June 30 did not signal even a momentary respite from the bitterness.

(More here.)

The Fall of France

Paul Krugman, NYT
AUG. 28, 2014

François Hollande, the president of France since 2012, coulda been a contender. He was elected on a promise to turn away from the austerity policies that killed Europe’s brief, inadequate economic recovery. Since the intellectual justification for these policies was weak and would soon collapse, he could have led a bloc of nations demanding a change of course. But it was not to be. Once in office, Mr. Hollande promptly folded, giving in completely to demands for even more austerity.

Let it not be said, however, that he is entirely spineless. Earlier this week, he took decisive action, but not, alas, on economic policy, although the disastrous consequences of European austerity grow more obvious with each passing month, and even Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, is calling for a change of course. No, all Mr. Hollande’s force was focused on purging members of his government daring to question his subservience to Berlin and Brussels.

It’s a remarkable spectacle. To fully appreciate it, however, you need to understand two things. First, Europe, as a whole, is in deep trouble. Second, however, within that overall pattern of disaster, France’s performance is much better than you would guess from news reports. France isn’t Greece; it isn’t even Italy. But it is letting itself be bullied as if it were a basket case.

On Europe: Like the United States, the euro area — the 18 countries that use the euro as a common currency — started to recover from the 2008 financial crisis midway through 2009. But after a debt crisis erupted in 2010, some European nations were forced, as a condition for loans, to make harsh spending cuts and raise taxes on working families. Meanwhile, Germany and other creditor countries did nothing to offset the downward pressure, and the European Central Bank, unlike the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, didn’t take extraordinary measures to boost private spending. As a result, the European recovery stalled in 2011, and has never really resumed.

(More here.)

ISIS Said to Kill 150 Syrian Captives in 2 Days

Videotaping the Horror

By BEN HUBBARD, WashPost, AUG. 28, 2014

BAGHDAD — Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have killed more than 150 captured soldiers in northern Syria in the last two days, a monitoring group said on Thursday. Video images posted online appeared to show the men being marched through the desert in their underwear by the extremists and then lying dead in the sand.

The mass killing of the soldiers represented a dark end to the battle for control of the Tabqa air base in Raqqa Province. The insurgents seized the base on Sunday after the deadliest fighting so far between ISIS and government forces.

The killings were reported on the same day that Syrian rebel fighters captured 43 United Nations peacekeepers near the demarcation line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, after heavy fighting in the area between non-ISIS rebel fighters and government troops.

As it has stormed through northern Iraq and seized Mosul, that country’s second-largest city, ISIS has often distributed graphic images of its dead adversaries, to enlarge its reputation and terrify its enemies. But even by the group’s usual brutal standards, the video of jihadist fighters taunting humiliated, nearly naked men as they were led to their death were horrifying, sending shock waves through Syrian communities that have stood by President Bashar al-Assad through more than three years of civil war.

(More here.)

A second Sunni Awakening?

By Fareed Zakaria Opinion writer August 28, WashPost

ISTANBUL

What are the strengths of the Islamic State? I posed this question to two deeply knowledgeable observers — a European diplomat and an American former official — and the picture they painted is worrying, although not hopeless. Defeating the group would require a large and sustained strategic effort from the Obama administration, but it could be done without significant numbers of U.S. ground troops.

The European diplomat, stationed in the Middle East, travels in and out of Syria and has access to regime and opposition forces. (Both sources agreed to speak only if their identities were not revealed.) He agrees with the consensus that the Islamic State has gained considerable economic and military strength in recent months. He estimates that it is making $1 million a day each in Syria and Iraq by selling oil and gas, although U.S. experts believe this number is too high in Iraq.

The Islamic State’s military strategy is brutal but also smart. The group’s annual reports — it has issued them since 2012 — detail its military methods and successes to try to impress its backers. The videos posted online of executions are barbaric but also strategic. They are designed to sow terror in the minds of opponents who, when facing Islamic State fighters on the battlefield, now reportedly flee rather than fight.

But the most dangerous aspect of the Islamic State, this diplomat believes, is its ideological appeal. It has recruited marginalized, disaffected Sunni youths in Syria and Iraq who believe they are being ruled by apostate regimes. This appeal to Sunni pride has worked largely because of the sectarian policies of the Baghdad and Damascus governments. But the Islamic State has also grown because of the larger collapse of moderate, secular and even Islamist institutions and groups — such as the Muslim Brotherhood — throughout the Middle East.

(More here.)

What does Russia tell the mothers of soldiers killed in Ukraine? Not much.

By Terrence McCoy August 29 at 3:46 AM WashPost

They are the nameless ones. The faceless ones. Called the “men in green,” they are a group of hundreds, if not thousands, of Russians fighting in Ukraine with neither identifying insignia nor official documents — soldiers in everything but name. Instead, they’re called “volunteers.” They’re called “vacationers. “They’re “blood brothers,” as rebel leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko described the Russians crossing the border to fight alongside him.

But such anonymity, which helps Moscow pretend that no Russian soldier fights in Ukraine, comes at a high cost. Rights groups, activists and local journalists now allege that Russia, already burdened with a dark history of soldier abuse, has suppressed the truth of its own killed soldiers, obfuscated details of their demise and buried some of the dead in unmarked graves to hide their role in Ukraine. And Russia’s response if its soldiers are caught: They’re wanderers who “accidentally” crossed the border.

Valentina Melnikova, who leads the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, told the Daily Beast she was “personally humiliated as a citizen of the Russian Federation by our commander-in-chief’s pure, direct crime.” She said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “violating not only international laws, not only the Geneva Convention, [he] also is breaking Russian Federation law about defense. And as for the [Russian airborne commander], we should be too disgusted to even mention his name. He forces his servicemen to fight in a foreign state, Ukraine, illegally, while mothers receive coffins with their sons, anonymously.”

(More here.)

U.S. Identifies Citizens Joining Rebels in Syria, Including ISIS

By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and ERIC SCHMITT, NYT
AUG. 28, 2014

WASHINGTON — American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have identified nearly a dozen Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militant group that the Obama administration says poses the greatest threat to the United States since Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As ISIS has seized large expanses of territory in recent months, it has drawn more foreign men to Syria, requiring more American and European law enforcement resources in the attempt to stop the flow of fighters, senior American officials said. And as a result of the increasing numbers of men, ISIS is now recruiting foreign women as jihadist wives.

ISIS has become more attractive to would-be militants because, unlike Al Qaeda, it has seized territory that it rules by strict Islamic law. “ISIS is able to hold itself up as the true jihad,” said a senior American official. “They’re saying: ‘Look at what we are doing, what we’re accomplishing. We’re the new face. We’re not just talking about it. We’re doing it.’ ”

(More here.)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

NATO: New satellite images show Russian troops in and around Ukraine

By Dan Lamothe August 28 at 12:27 PM WashPost

NATO released satellite images on Thursday of what it said were Russian artillery, vehicles and troops in and around eastern Ukraine, just as Ukrainian officials said Russian troops in armored vehicles captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk, along its southeastern coastline.

The satellite photos appear to show Russian vehicles and troops in numerous locations. NATO officials said that the first image below shows a convoy with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, Ukraine, inside territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists on Aug. 21. The Ukrainian military has not moved this far inside separatist-controlled territory, so NATO officials said they are confident the equipment is Russian:

This second image shows Russian artillery units setting up positions in Krasnodon, NATO officials said. Vehicles believed to be carrying ammunition and supplies are alongside them.

“This configuration is exactly how trained military professionals would arrange their assets on the ground, indicating that these are not unskilled amateurs, but Russian soldiers,” NATO officials said.

(More here.)

Russian Soldiers in Ukraine Put Pressure on Putin

With evidence of Russian military activity in Ukraine piling up, how long can Moscow deny its involvement in the ongoing conflict?

Simon Shuster TIME
Aug. 27, 2014

The frantic appeal to the Russian President came on Wednesday from a cramped and cluttered office in the city of Kostroma, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, where the relatives of Russian prisoners of war had gathered to wait for news of their sons and husbands. Olga Pochtoeva, the mother of one of the Russian soldiers recently captured in Ukraine, stood before the camera, her eyes red from crying, and addressed Vladimir Putin directly. “I beg you in the name of Christ,” she said. “Give me back my child. Give him back alive.”

It was another blow to Putin’s position on the war in eastern Ukraine. The previous night, after a round of talks aimed at ending a conflict that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since April, Putin had again insisted that Russia was not a party to the conflict and had sent no soldiers to fight it. “This is not our business,” he told reporters after the talks in the capital of Belarus, having just finished his first meeting since June with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “It is a domestic matter of Ukraine itself,” he said.

But Putin’s persistent denials of Russian involvement have started to crack, eroded by a growing body of proof that Russian soldiers are in fact fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine. The evidence suggests a new level of Russian involvement in the war, not merely funneling weapons and volunteers across the border to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, but sending regular Russian ground forces on missions into Ukrainian territory. The inevitable result of that escalation has been a growing Russian casualty count, and the funerals and panicked relatives of Russian soldiers have been hard to sweep under the rug. Soon they are likely to force Putin either to come clean and admit his country’s intervention in Ukraine, or to face the growing public resentment over his denials.

The first crack in Russia’s claim of non-involvement came on Monday morning, when the Ukrainian security services released images of nine Russian paratroopers who had been captured on the Ukrainian side of the border. In the video statement of Pochtoeva’s son, Yegor Pochtoev, he appeals to his parents directly. “Mom, dad, everything is fine. I have enough to eat and drink,” he says. “But the Russian Ministry of Defense is denying that we are their servicemen, that we have come from Russia.” He asks his parents to help prove that they are Russian soldiers.

(More here.)

The Poisoning of Africa’s Vultures

By DARCY L. OGADA, NYT, AUG. 27, 2014

NAIROBI, Kenya — IN July of last year, roughly 500 vultures died after they ate the pesticide-laced carcass of an elephant that had been killed by poachers in Namibia. It was an example of one poaching technique in Africa that seems to be on the rise: the poisoning of vultures so that authorities won’t be alerted to the location of the crime.

The overhead circling of vultures has long been used to locate lost or dead livestock. In the same way, vultures help law enforcement officers zero in on poachers.

With their keen eyesight and distinctive vantage point, vultures can locate an elephant carcass within 30 minutes of the animal’s death. It can take 45 to 70 minutes for the most skilled poachers to hack off two elephant tusks, and when vultures gather overhead rangers can get that much closer to apprehending the perpetrators. By poisoning a carcass and killing vultures en masse, poachers are trying to ensure that next time around there will be fewer of them to contend with.

Vulture conservationists began to take particular note of this development in July 2012, when an elephant was poached in Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and 191 vultures were found scattered around the carcass, poisoned. Since then, six more cases of these poisonings have been reported. The most recent was in May. All told, some 1,700 vultures died.

(More here.)

America’s coal heartland is in economic freefall — but only the most desperate are fleeing

“My dad worked in the mines until he couldn’t pass a physical no more, and I always thought I’d do the same."

By Chico Harlan August 27 WashPost

LOGAN, W.Va. — For 51 years he’d lived in the same hollow and for two decades he’d performed the same job, mining coal from the underground seams of southern West Virginia. Then, on June 30, Michael Estep was jobless. His mine shut down, and its operator said “market conditions” made coal production unviable.

What has come since, for Estep, stands as the new Central Appalachian economic experience: a job-hunt in a region whose sustaining industry is in an unprecedented freefall. “I don’t know what to do,” Estep said as unpaid bills piled up, his cable cut to black, and his wife withdrew the last $7 from a checking account they’d held for 20 years.

What’s happening now in America’s coal heartland is not just the typical bust. Those in the industry say it’s more dire, potentially permanent, caused at once by declining reserves, a cheaper influx of competing gas and looming environmental regulations. More than 10,000 miners have lost jobs over the past two-and-a-half years in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and their plight illustrates how, even amid an economic recovery, certain segments of the workforce are being shut out.

Miners, modestly educated but accustomed to high pay, are among the hardest group of American workers to retrain. They also tend to challenge one of the tenets of economics logic — that people will go elsewhere to find jobs. Even though the economy is growing in northern parts of West Virginia, driven by a natural gas boom, those in the geographically isolated southern parts have shown a tendency to stay put, even if it means sliding toward poverty.

(More here.)

FBI Files Link Christian Televangelist To Mafia, Gun Running, Narcotics, White Supremacism

The co-founder of the world's largest Christian evangelical television ministry has been linked in FBI files to the Mafia, gun running, narcotics, money laundering, anti-Semitism, white supremacism, and other activities around the world.

David Badash, TheNewCivilRightsMovement.com

The FBI was investigating Paul Crouch, the co-founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Crouch, who died last year at the age of 79, was one of the world's first "televangelists." Crouch and his wife, Jan Crouch, first began their "ministry" by renting time on a local Canadian TV station, and grew their "ministry" into TBN, a multi-million dollar international TV network which he co-founded with the now infamous grifter, Jim Bakker, and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker.

The New York Times in 2012 reported on the TBN founders who were at the forefront of the so-called "prosperity gospel," noting that in 2010 alone they took in $93 million in donations through their "ministry."

Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, investigative journalism site MuckRock "reveals the laundry list of Crouch’s activities the FBI was monitoring or even investigating."

Among the more interesting revelations is the claim that the FBI's "reports accuse Crouch and his partners as being motivated by 'anti-semitic and white supremacist,' beliefs."

In 1997 the FBI labeled Crouch "an anti-semitic, white supremacist" -- but once they identified him as a religious figure they "conducted no further investigation."

(More here.)

Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?

Nickolas Kristof, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

Let’s start with what we don’t know: the precise circumstances under which a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot dead an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.

But here’s what evidence does strongly suggest: Young black men in America suffer from widespread racism and stereotyping, by all society — including African-Americans themselves.

Research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in racial equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.

Scholars have found that blacks and Hispanics treated by doctors for a broken leg received pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury. School administrators suspend black students at more than three times the rate of white students. Police arrest blacks at 3.7 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, even though surveys find that both use marijuana at roughly similar rates.

(More here.)

Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege

Charles M. Blow, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

Is white privilege real? Not according to Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.

This week O’Reilly debated the issue of white privilege with a fellow host and then returned to the topic the next day with this doozy of a statement:

“Last night on ‘The Factor,’ Megyn Kelly and I debated the concept of white privilege whereby some believe that if you are Caucasian you have inherent advantages in America. ‘Talking Points’ does not, does not believe in white privilege. However, there is no question that African-Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do.”

It is difficult to believe that those three sentences came in that order from the same mouth. Why would it be harder for blacks to succeed? Could interpersonal and, more important, systemic bias play a role? And, once one acknowledges the presence of bias as an impediment, one must by extension concede that being allowed to navigate the world without such biases is a form of privilege.

(More here.)

Russian and Ukraine troops battle in south, prompting fears that invasion has begun

By Annie Gowen and Karoun Demirjian August 28 at 6:37 AM, WashPost

KIEV, Ukraine — Fighting between the Ukrainian military and what Ukrainian and Western officials say are Russian troops worsened early Thursday, prompting fears in Ukraine that a Russian invasion of their territory has begun.

Ukrainian officials say Ukrainian troops are continuing to battle combined Russian and separatist forces on a new southern front around the border town of Novoazovsk, east of Crimea on the Sea of Azov. A military spokesman also said Russian troops are increasing surveillance from northern Crimea, the autonomous Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in March.

As firefights and shelling continued all day Wednesday and into the night, there were differing reports on whether Novoazovsk, a previously quiet border town, had fallen to Russian-backed separatists. Russian troops and their allies do control villages north of there, according to military spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

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Islamic State Fills Coffers From Illicit Economy in Syria, Iraq

Group Pirates Oil, Exacts Tribute From Locals, Making It Among World's Richest in Terror

By Nour Malas and Maria Abi-Habib, WSJ
Aug. 27, 2014 5:37 p.m. ET

The Islamic State runs a self-sustaining economy across territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, pirating oil while exacting tribute from a population of at least eight million, Arab and Western officials said, making it one of the world's richest terror groups and an unprecedented threat.

That illicit economy presents a new picture of Islamic State's financial underpinnings. The group was once thought to depend on funding from Arab Gulf donors and donations from the broader Muslim world. Now, Islamic State—the former branch of al Qaeda that has swallowed parts of Iraq and Syria—is a largely self-financed organization.

Money from outside donors "pales in comparison to their self-funding through criminal and terrorist activities," a U.S. State Department official said, adding that those activities generate millions of dollars a month.

For Western and Arab nations that are striving to stop Islamic State, the group's local funding sources pose a conundrum: A clampdown on economic activity that helps fund the group, counterterrorism officials and experts said, could cause a humanitarian crisis in the already stressed areas it controls.

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Military Skill and Terrorist Technique Fuel Success of ISIS

By BEN HUBBARD and ERIC SCHMITT, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

BAGHDAD — As fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continue to seize territory, the group has quietly built an effective management structure of mostly middle-aged Iraqis overseeing departments of finance, arms, local governance, military operations and recruitment.

At the top the organization is the self-declared leader of all Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a radical chief executive officer of sorts, who handpicked many of his deputies from among the men he met while a prisoner in American custody at the Camp Bucca detention center a decade ago.

He had a preference for military men, and so his leadership team includes many officers from Saddam Hussein’s long-disbanded army.

They include former Iraqi officers like Fadel al-Hayali, the top deputy for Iraq, who once served Mr. Hussein as a lieutenant colonel, and Adnan al-Sweidawi, a former lieutenant colonel who now heads the group’s military council.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Audio From a Koch Event, McConnell Envisions Undoing Obama Initiatives

By JONATHAN WEISMAN, NYT, AUG. 27, 2014

WASHINGTON — At a private conclave with the billionaire Koch brothers’ political apparatus this year, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, laid out a confrontational agenda for a Republican-controlled Senate aimed at dismantling President Obama’s legislative successes through the federal budget.

In an audio recording leaked to The Undercurrent, a liberal-leaning YouTube channel, and initially reported by the magazine The Nation, Mr. McConnell told the mid-June gathering in Dana Point, Calif., that if the Republicans gained control of the Senate and retained control of the House in November, Congress could use the budget process to force the president to roll back his priorities.

“In the House and Senate, we own the budget,” he said, explaining that the initial blueprint on taxes and spending does not require the president’s signature. “So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”

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Medicare: Not Such a Budget-Buster Anymore

By Margot Sanger-Katz and Kevin Quealy, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

You’re looking at the biggest story involving the federal budget and a crucial one for the future of the American economy. Every year for the last six years in a row, the Congressional Budget Office has reduced its estimate for how much the federal government will need to spend on Medicare in coming years. The latest reduction came in a report from the budget office on Wednesday morning.

The changes are big. The difference between the current estimate for Medicare’s 2019 budget and the estimate for the 2019 budget four years ago is about $95 billion. That sum is greater than the government is expected to spend that year on unemployment insurance, welfare and Amtrak — combined. It’s equal to about one-fifth of the expected Pentagon budget in 2019. Widely discussed policy changes, like raising the estate tax, would generate just a tiny fraction of the budget savings relative to the recent changes in Medicare’s spending estimates.

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GOP poll of women: Party 'stuck in past'

By: Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, Politico.com
August 27, 2014 05:47 PM EDT

A detailed report commissioned by two major Republican groups — including one backed by Karl Rove — paints a dismal picture for Republicans, concluding women voters view the party as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion” and “stuck in the past.”

Women are “barely receptive” to Republicans’ policies and the party does “especially poorly” with women in the Northeast and Midwest, according to an internal Crossroads GPS and American Action Network report obtained by POLITICO. It was presented to a small number of senior aides this month on Capitol Hill, according to multiple sources involved.

Republicans swore they’d turn around the party’s performance with women after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. And while they are in good shape in 2014, poised to pick up seats in the House and possibly take the majority in the Senate, the new report shows that they have not improved their standing with women — which could exacerbate their problems if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016.

The report – “Republicans and Women Voters: Huge Challenges, Real Opportunities” – was the product of eight focus groups across the country and a poll of 800 registered female voters this summer. The large-scale project was a major undertaking for groups.

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Ukraine Says Russian Forces Lead Major New Offensive in East

By ANDREW E. KRAMER and MICHAEL R. GORDON, NYT
AUG. 27, 2014

NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine — Tanks, artillery and infantry have crossed from Russia into an unbreached part of eastern Ukraine in recent days, attacking Ukrainian forces and causing panic and wholesale retreat not only in this small border town but also a wide section of territory, in what Ukrainian and Western military officials described on Wednesday as a stealth invasion.

The attacks outside this city and in an area to the north essentially have opened a new, third front in the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists, along with the fighting outside the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Exhausted, filthy and dismayed, Ukrainian soldiers staggering out of Novoazovsk for safer territory said Tuesday they were cannon fodder for the forces coming from Russia. As they spoke, tank shells whistled in from the east and exploded nearby.

Some of the retreating Ukrainian soldiers appeared unwilling to fight. The commander of their unit, part of the Ninth Brigade from Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine, barked at the men to turn around, to no effect. “All right,” the commander said. “Anybody who refuses to fight, sit apart from the others.” Eleven men did, while the others returned to the city.

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Veterans Affairs Watchdog: Health-Care Scheduling Delays Not Fatal

Inspector General Finds Widespread Scheduling Problems at Phoenix VA But Can't Tie to Deaths

By Ben Kesling, WSJ
Aug. 26, 2014 2:24 p.m. ET

The Department of Veterans Affairs' independent watchdog said no patient deaths at the Phoenix VA Health Care System were directly caused by long wait times, in a final report that nevertheless detailed widespread scheduling problems there.

The Office of the Inspector General for the department released the report Tuesday, following months of turmoil at the agency, multiple investigations and a number of resignations, including by Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Much of the attention on the agency was triggered by claims that patients died because of long wait times that department employees didn't properly track.

"While the case reviews in this report document poor quality of care, we are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the death of these veterans," the inspector-general report said. The document, however, noted that 28 patients had "clinically significant" delays in care due to scheduling problems or poor access to care.

The report was issued as the White House was focused Tuesday on veterans. President Barack Obama spoke at the national convention of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans service organization, which has been a vocal critic of VA problems.

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Russia and Ukraine Talks Yield Little Progress on Ending Conflict

From left, presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine meet in Minsk on Tuesday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Putin Promises Support but Focuses on Trade Issues in Peace Talks With Poroshenko

By Andrey Ostroukh in Minsk, Belarus, and, Alan Cullison in Moscow
Updated Aug. 26, 2014 7:31 p.m. ET, WSJ

Face-to-face talks between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents failed to produce a breakthrough for ending the conflict over eastern Ukraine, as Kiev released videos of captured Russian soldiers and rebels pushed toward a government-held city.

The one-on-one session, which Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko described as "tough and complex," ended early Wednesday after a day of talks on the crisis in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

Mr. Poroshenko said afterward that he would prepare a "road map" toward a possible cease-fire with the pro-Russia separatists, according to a statement carried by news agencies.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin expressed support as well as apparent skepticism. "Russia will do everything possible for the peace process, if it begins," he told reporters separately, adding that it "should get started as soon as possible."

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American Fighting for ISIS Is Killed in Syria

Photo Douglas McAuthur McCain
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT, NYT
AUG. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — Like many teenage boys who grew up in the Midwest in the 1990s, Douglas McAuthur McCain was a fan of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and loved to play basketball.

But as he grew older, he lost interest in basketball as he shuttled between two suburban Minneapolis high schools. He never graduated, and in his late teens, he began to have run-ins with the law. In the decade that followed, he was arrested or cited nine times on charges including theft, marijuana possession and driving without a license.

Mr. McCain moved back and forth from Minneapolis to San Diego and then abroad. Officials now know he ended up in Syria, where three days ago, Mr. McCain became the first American to die while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He was 33.

The rebels who killed him were fighting for the Free Syrian Army, a rival group backed by the United States, and they went on to behead six ISIS fighters — but not Mr. McCain — and then posted the photographs on Facebook.

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Obama Pursuing Climate Accord in Lieu of Treaty

By CORAL DAVENPORT, NYT, AUG. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is working to forge a sweeping international climate change agreement to compel nations to cut their planet-warming fossil fuel emissions, but without ratification from Congress.

In preparation for this agreement, to be signed at a United Nations summit meeting in 2015 in Paris, the negotiators are meeting with diplomats from other countries to broker a deal to commit some of the world’s largest economies to enact laws to reduce their carbon pollution. But under the Constitution, a president may enter into a legally binding treaty only if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

To sidestep that requirement, President Obama’s climate negotiators are devising what they call a “politically binding” deal that would “name and shame” countries into cutting their emissions. The deal is likely to face strong objections from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from poor countries around the world, but negotiators say it may be the only realistic path.

“If you want a deal that includes all the major emitters, including the U.S., you cannot realistically pursue a legally binding treaty at this time,” said Paul Bledsoe, a top climate change official in the Clinton administration who works closely with the Obama White House on international climate change policy.

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U.S. Mobilizes Allies to Widen Assault on ISIS

By HELENE COOPER and MARK LANDLER, NYT
AUG. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — The United States has begun to mobilize a broad coalition of allies behind potential American military action in Syria and is moving toward expanded airstrikes in northern Iraq, administration officials said on Tuesday.

President Obama, the officials said, was broadening his campaign against the Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and nearing a decision to authorize airstrikes and airdrops of food and water around the northern Iraqi town of Amerli, home to members of Iraq’s Turkmen minority. The town of 12,000 has been under siege for more than two months by the militants.

“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on Tuesday to the American Legion in Charlotte, N.C., using an alternative name for ISIS. He said that the United States was building a coalition to “take the fight to these barbaric terrorists,” and that the militants would be “no match” for a united international community.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are Growing, and Growing More Dangerous, Draft of U.N. Report Says

Where ice once capped the Sermeq Avangnardleq glacier in Greenland, vast expanses of the Arctic Ocean are now clear. Credit Kadir van Lohuizen for The New York Times

By JUSTIN GILLIS, NYT
AUG. 26, 2014

Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.

The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable, the report said. The actual melting would then take centuries, but it would be unstoppable and could result in a sea level rise of 23 feet, with additional increases from other sources like melting Antarctic ice, potentially flooding the world’s major cities.

(More here.)