The war against ISIS has been small-scale, rather than a grand effort.[1]  The total American force in Iraq has slowly risen from 275 troops sent as trainers and advisers after the Iraqi Army collapsed in Summer 2014 to about 4,000 today.  American Special Forces spotters are directing American air-strikes in support of both Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters (in both Iraq and Syria).  Others have been raiding ISIS targets and a number of ISIS leaders have been killed: notably the war minister and the finance minister.  An earlier effort at intelligence gathering (either human intelligence or signals intelligence) has led to targeted air attacks on the oil fields that provide much of the funds for ISIS and other sites.  Now, more Special Forces troops are being sent to Syria to bolster the efforts of those Sunnis who are willing to fight ISIS.  The Iraqi government forces don’t look too effective, but they are in the field and moving forward in fits and starts.

The results of this patched together strategy have been more impressive than one might think from the daily news: 26,000 ISIS fighters killed; 40 percent of the territory it once held recaptured; 3 million of the 9 million people inside the caliphate liberated; 30 percent of its revenue lost.[2]  Next on the agenda is a strike at Mosul.

That’s the good news.  What’s the bad news?  First, a large part of the explanation for the sudden expansion of ISIS in Summer 2014 lay in the political divisions, incompetence, and corruption of Iraq’s government at that time.  The US engineered the eviction of the then prime minister Maliki and his replacement by Haider al-Abadi.  However, things have not improved very much.  Corruption and division continue to plague the government.  Recently, Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric (and an old opponent of the Americans) forced al-Abadi to fire many of the government officials most deeply implicated in corruption.  In addition, the Sunni minority—whose “Awakening” greatly contributed to the defeat of the original insurgency—continue to be persecuted by the Shiite government.  All of this can impede the drive on Mosul.

Along the same lines, the Kurds have played a valuable role in the fight against ISIS, but now that success has become a problem.  The 250 additional Special Forces troops bound for Syria are intended to recruit, train, and coordinate Sunni Arabs because it is feared that the intrusion of Kurds into the area will set off ethnic conflicts that could derail the war effort.

Second, radical Islamism of the al-Qaeda-ISIS type has a widespread following in the Muslim world.  At the moment, the most troubling bastion of ISIS adherents outside the caliphate itself is in Libya.  Adherents of ISIS have been bolstered by ISIS fighters sent from Syria.  They have seized the oil port of Sirte.  They appear to be attempting the conquest of the Sirte oil region.

Third, the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels have led to reports that ISIS has sent a sizable group of terrorists to conduct operations in Western Europe.

It is natural to ask if, in the waning days of the Obama administration, victory or something like it will be in sight by the time his successor is inaugurated.  That would surely add to his legacy.  However, the continuing governmental disaster in Baghdad and the refusal of the Shiites to make a just peace with the Sunnis is a problem that is not going to go away.  The same is true of violent radical Islam.  Frustrating, infuriating, and humiliating as has been the Obama administrations course in the fight against ISIS, it is only a campaign in a larger, longer-running war.  Many of the dilemmas of engagement in this fight will plague the next administration.

[1] “The war against ISIS,” The Week, 6 May 2016, p. 11.

[2] Apparently, there is a military solution to the problem of ISIS.  The same may be true of the Syrian civil war.

Amidst the Gloom and Doom.

Not that you would know it from the media, but lots of things have gotten better.

Between 1964 and 2004, the number of Americans who smoked fell every year.  In 2004, the decline bottomed out at 20.8 percent.  It stayed there through the end of 2007.[1]  I think that it is about the same today.  Why did the decline stop?  Who are the smokers?  Partly a bunch of self-destructive dopes; partly a bunch of libertarians fed up with an intrusive nanny-state?[2]

Like crime rates, the number of homeless people has been declining.[3]  The number fell by about 11 percent from 2010 to 2015.  At the same time, and again like crime, homelessness has become increasingly concentrated in a few big cities.  Increases in homelessness in New York City (42 percent), Los Angeles (24 percent), and San Francisco (16 percent) indicate that these places have become the “destination shelters” for the homeless.

Between 1990 and 2010, the abortion rate in the United States fell by 35 percent, thanks in large part to wider user of more effective contraceptives like IUDs.  It is now at the lowest level since 1976.[4]  Restrictions on access to abortions appear to have played a smaller role—if any.  One doesn’t have to be opposed to a woman’s right to choose to think that fewer abortions is a good thing.

The use of capital punishment has declined in the United States.  It fell from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014 to 20 in the first two-thirds of 2015.  Extrapolating from that latter figure, there would be 30 in all of 2015.  Even in Texas, the state most prone to impose the death sentence, no one had been sentenced to death by September 2015.[5]  (In contrast, the total number of executions carried out world-wide doubled from about 8000 in 2014 to 1,634 in 2015.[6]  Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia visited the Wrath of Allah on a lot more people last year.)

The war on drugs is being lost say 84 percent of Americans; being won say 3 percent of Americans; and “don’t know” say 13 percent of Americans (the latter two groups apparently don’t have teen-age children).[7]

In early 2015, 60 percent of Arabs aged 18 to 24 had an unfavorable view of ISIS.  By early 2016, 78 percent of that group had an unfavorable view.[8]  Are we winning “hearts and minds” in Muslim countries?  Or is ISIS just losing them?  (Or is the 18 percent difference just a reflection of how many from that demographic have gone to fight for ISIS and are unavailable to be polled?)

A Yale University study reported that people who use the internet feel much smarter than they actually are.[9]

Men who had lots of friends in high-school went on to be much more successful in life than did shy nerdy kids.  One additional friend could off-set half of the income gain resulting from an extra year of education.[10]   So, perhaps the solution to our current problem with stagnant incomes is to be found in Dale Carnegie and Arthur Murray?  Just trying to help.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 23 November 2007, p. 16.

[2] Disclaimer: I’ve been chewing tobacco for 30 years.  I wish I could quit, but how would I gross out people?

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 19 February 2016, p. 18.

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 25 December 2015, p. 20.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 16.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 22 April 2016, p. 18.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 August 2014, p. 17.

[8] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 April 2016, p. 19.

[9] The Week, 10 April 2015, p. 4.

[10] “Popularity,” Institute for Social and Economic Research.  Atlantic, May 2009, p. 15.

Shooting Dogs.

David Belton went to Rwanda in 1994 as a reporter for the BBC.  After the killings began, he and the other whites were evacuated by Western military forces.   These Westerners left behind many Rwandans they had known, but carried with them terrible memories of things they had witnessed.  Belton went back to making documentaries for the BBC.  Rwanda stayed on his mind.

One of the stories from Rwanda which Belton heard concerned Father Vjekoslav “Vjeko” Ćurić (1957-1998).  Ćurić had been born in the Artist Formerly Known as Yugoslavia.  He became a Catholic priest and, in 1983, went to Rwanda as a missionary.  He got posted to a small town in the provinces.  Ćurić turned out to be a missionary priest out of some 1940s Hollywood movie: moral without being moralistic, and devoted to his flock and beloved by them.   When the genocide began, he refused to be evacuated.  He worked hard and courageously to help victims from among both Hutus and Tutsis.  He survived the genocide, but someone shot him dead a few years later under murky circumstances.[1]

David Wolstonecraft (1969- ) was born in Hawaii, but ended up living in Scotland at a young age.  He went to Cambridge (where he got a BA in History, so there).  He got a job writing for British television shows.  Television is a small world.  Belton and Wolstonecraft ran into each other.  Together, they wrote the script for “Shooting Dogs,” inspired by what Belton had seen in Rwanda and centered on a version of the story of Father “Vjeko” Ćurić.

They pitched the story to BBC Films.  Approaching the ten-year anniversary of the genocide, lots of people were thinking back to it and what it had meant.[2]  BBC Films agreed to produce it.  They put Michael Caton-Jones (1957- ) in as director, hired some not-quite stars to act, and decided to film the movie in Kigali, Rwanda.  So, lots of what you see in the movie is what Kigali actually looks like, and most of the extras are Rwandans.

None of the Rwanda movies does a good job of explaining the context.  In brief compass, a recent insurgency by Tutsis against the Hutu government had resulted in a truce.  The UN has sent in a bunch of Belgian soldiers to “monitor” the truce.[3]  Then the Hutus began to repent their moderation.  Meanwhile, the US didn’t want to get involved in another Somalia.[4]  The French didn’t want the potentially pro-Anglophone Tutsis to defeat the actually Francophone Hutus.  So, the two countries resisted calling what happened “genocide” or intervening to stop it.

The story centers on the “Ecole Technique Officielle” (The Official/Public Technical School), a sort of technical middle school.  A priest, Father Christopher (played by John Hurt),  runs the school.  He is assisted by a young Englishman, Joe Connor (played by Hugh Dancey, who has come to Africa for a while to do some good in the world.  The school also provides a base for a bunch of the Belgian soldiers.  Then, there is Marie (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), the Tutsi student who may have a crush on Joe.  Around this human core of the story circle a BBC reporter and her cameraman, who symbolizes the media and what the world knows; a Belgian army officer, who symbolizes the ineffectiveness of the UN; and a bunch of killers with machetes and clubs.  What are any of these people—or us–supposed to do?

[1] It could have been an armed robbery or it could have been some kind of retribution for his actions in 1994.  Or it could have been something else entirely.

[2] Curiously, at the same time another Anglo-American team of writers was working on a different story about Rwanda.  Keir Pearson and Terry George wrote the script for “Hotel Rwanda.”  It came out the same year as “Shooting Dogs” and just buried it.  Too bad: it isn’t a better movie, just a more up-beat one.

[3] That is, they are not there to “enforce” or even “keep” peace.  They’re just watchers.  Voyeurs really.

[4] See “Black Hawk Down” (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001).

A lovely day in the neighborhood.

Social scientists contend that the location in which a child grows up correlates with their adult fate.[1]  On the one hand, there is adult income.[2]  One experiment that ran from 1994 to 1998 offered people living in public housing the opportunity to enter a lottery.[3]  Winners in the lottery received vouchers to help pay the rent if they moved to other areas.  The children of lottery winners (if they moved early enough) far outpaced the children of losers in subsequent earnings.[4]

The sequential demolition of the vast Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago between 1995 and 1998 displaced both those who did want to move and those who did not want to move.  All had to go and all received housing vouchers.  Comparing those who moved—willingly or unwillingly—with those who remained behind, economists have found that a) those who moved were 9 percent more likely to be employed than those who remained behind; and b) they earned 16 percent more than those who remained behind.

Then there is life-span.[5]  Rich people have lived longer than poor people for quite a while.  At the start of this century the average billionaire lived 12 years longer than the average street-person.  Today the gap has widened to 15 years.  Social scientists (and, for all I know, anti-social scientists or just the John Frink, Jr.s of this world) have documented that there is a very uneven distribution of extra years among poor people.  The poor in some places live almost as long as the rich, but they die young in other places.  On average, poor men in New York City live for 79.5 years; poor men in Gary, Indiana live for only 74. 2 years.

The studies suggest that altering the habits and attitudes of poor people in the blighted areas could extend lives.  First of all, in the housing-voucher lottery, only one-fourth of the people who were offered the chance to join the lottery did so.  Those who did apply have been characterized as “particularly motivated to protect their children from the negative effects of a bad neighborhood.”  This means that three-quarters of the people offered the chance to join the lottery were not “particularly motivated to protect their children.”

Then, moving to a better neighborhood increased likelihood of being employed by only 9 percent.  That’s better than nothing, but it isn’t much of a bump.  Moving to a better neighborhood increased lifetime earnings by 16 percent.  How much is that in dollar figures?  It’s $45,000.  Spread over a possible 40 year working life, that’s $1,125 a year and about $0.55 per hour.  Is it worthwhile for a family to leave behind everyone they know, a “system” that they know how to navigate, for this kind of money?

Second, the rich live in healthier ways than do some poor people.  They eat better, they exercise more, they are less likely to be obese, they usually don’t smoke, and they are unlikely to use opiods.  Even demanding, stressful jobs don’t make them feel more stressed than do poor people.  Poor people often eat a poor diet, smoke, and don’t exercise (it’s hard running 5 miles if you’re a smoker). Diet propaganda, parenting education, anti-smoking campaigns, and adult exercise programs could make a big difference.

To an uncertain extent then, poverty is volitional, a choice.  See: Juan Williams.

[1] That raises a question: does the neighborhood itself cause this effect or do people with other characteristics and experiences just end up in certain kinds of neighborhoods?

[2] Given social class segregation, it isn’t readily apparent why this isn’t the same as saying that the social class in which a child grows up has a large effect on their adult income.  Maybe it’s just NewSpeak.

[3] Justin Wolfers, “Bad Neighborhoods Do More Harm Than We Thought,” NYT, 27 March 2016.

[4] However, another experiment found virtually no difference in outcomes between winners and losers.

[5] Neil Irwin and Quoctrung Bui, “Where the Poor Live in America May Help Determine Life Span,” NYT, 11 April 2016.

World Have Your Say 1.

Recently, President Obama stated that the failure to plan for the “day after” in Libya constituted his “worst mistake.”[1]  He does not regret overthrowing Gaddafi, but he does regret not having given any thought to what would happen afterward.

How have commentators responded?  According to the BBC’s “World Have Your Say” comment page on the story, informed opinion shapes up like the following.

The three most approved comments were:

HugoFrost remarked thatThis is what happens when you “take out” leaders like this in the middle east. It leaves a huge power vacuum for terrorists to exploit.  Gaddafi, Hussein, and to an extent Assad. These were the front liners holding back a much worse fate, which is what we’re seeing in Europe at the moment.  307 Positive versus 10 Negative = Plus 297.

The Big Fish argued that “the only way you can run such countries is with a dictator. It’s always tribe first, religion second. And any interference is always perceived as being against the religion and simply fuels the propaganda against the so-called West.  Stay out, even if they do have oil.” 229 Positive versus 9 Negative = Plus 220.

Fishermans_Enemy observed that “Yet he is a Nobel Prize winner… Libya’s troubles are far from over, frankly, some say they are just beginning.  Still, Obama is following on from this Libya mistake by trying to topple another leader in Syria but this time arming Al Qaeda aligned ‘rebels’ to fight Assad whereas a few years ago prior they were terrorists.  The problem isn’t so much Obama but US supremacy in general.”  165 Positive versus 16 Negative = Plus 149.

Conversely, the three least approved comments were:

U16440316 believes that [Obama’s] “worst mistake was running for president in the first place. He had the chutzpah to say that 10 Trillion Dollars of debt was UNPATRIOTIC.THEN HE DOUBLED IT. The man is a disaster.  Yet the left wing media treat him like some god.  That’s leftism for you.”  108 Positive versus 192 Negative = minus 84.

Gary H argued that “The Middle East need[s] dragging up to Western standards, out of the dark ages. Even their own people don’t want to live there.  Do we care when they stone their own people to death? We prefer to leave it that way?  Shame on us every time we turn our backs.  It’s our duty.”  10 Positive versus 37 Negative = Minus 27.

Mike from Brum said that “I’ve said it before. Go to Israel, tell them they have a month when no one is looking and to sort them out. By the time the Israelites are finished, the whole region with be devoid of anything but tumbleweed. Good riddance.”  12 Positive versus 36 Negative = Minus 24.

The top three Positive comments equal + 666.  The bottom three Negative comments equal – 135.

Thus, there is a lot more consensus on the Positive comments than on the Negative comments.  Among the Positive comments, there is a belief that the Middle East [and other places outside the West] needs dictators to keep dangerous forces in line.  This is a repudiation of President Obama’s embrace of the “Arab Spring.”

In contrast, the Negative comments are more varied, from attacks on President Obama as a leader to a plea for intervention in benighted places to a belief in violence as a solution.

If leaders are listening to thinking citizens, then they will be very cautious in the future about toppling authoritarian regimes.  That doesn’t mean that they will not do it.  Perhaps they will prepare better for the consequences.  Or time will pass and they will forget.

[1] See:

Look at what I almost stepped in.

Western European countries needed extra workers during the great economic boom that took off after the Second World War.[1]  They imported these workers from the old empires and other developing areas.  Then the European Union allowed a considerable mobility of the immigrants after they arrived.  Generally, these countries didn’t give any thought to the assimilation of the immigrant “guest workers.”  Either it was assumed that they would go home after working in Europe or the possibility of problems didn’t occur to any government official.  So, all countries now have a problem with the descendants of the immigrants who never went home and—often—did not assimilate.

Belgium brought in lots of Turks and Moroccans.  Today there are about 640,000 Muslims living in Belgium, where they make up about 5 percent of the population.  Belgium turned out to be a particularly difficult country for assimilation.  It is, in a sense, a “made-up” country created for the convenience of other countries back in the 19th Century.[2]  It is divided between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings.  Efforts to pacify the factions produced competing and overlapping government bureaucracies. Quarrels between the two groups continue, so no one gave much thought to the immigrants and the immigrants had no clear national identity to try to join.

Then the oil shocks of the 1970s heralded a period of economic troubles that included the dying of the coal and steel industries in which the immigrants and many native Belgians labored.  The immigrants and their descendants adapted less well to the changes than did the native Belgians.  Poverty and isolation compounded each other.  Now Belgium has a large population of citizens who are considerably angrier with their country than are the supporters of Donald Trump.  Many of them turned to petty crime and drugs.  In these miserable conditions, street preachers arose and won followers by preaching that their victimization arose from their faith.  An uncertain share of them has embraced radical Islam.[3]  Even when not violent activists themselves, many Belgian Muslims are so estranged from Belgian society that they are willing to turn a blind eye to the violent among them.

Then came the Islamic State.  Some 560 Belgian Muslims are believed to have gone to fight for the Caliphate. Belgian cops were glad to see them go.  Belgium’s counter-terrorism forces are under-staffed and overwhelmed.  Maybe the Islamists would get killed.  Many did die in all likelihood.  Now, some 120 of the veterans have returned.  They have been at the heart of the recent spectacular terrorism: the guns for the January 2015 “Charlie Hebdo” attack came from Belgium; the November 2015 Paris attack was planned in Belgium; and the March 2016 attack in Brussels was carried out by Belgian-born Islamists.[4]

Now Belgium is trying to make up a lot of lost ground in both security and assimilation.

NB: The title to this piece is the punch-line to a French “Belgian joke,” equivalent to the one-time Polish or Blonde jokes in the United States.

[1] In Germany it’s called the “wirtschaftwunder” (the Economic Miracle); in France it’s called “Les trente glorieuse” (the Glorious Thirty [Years].”

[2] The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) redrew the map of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.  To guard against a resurgence of French imperialism, the Congress tried to strengthen the countries on France’s northeastern and southeastern borders.  In one case this meant adding the Catholic former Austrian Netherlands (today Belgium) to the Protestant Kingdom of Holland.  The Catholics rebelled against Protestant rule in 1830.  Rather than  resist this by force or partition the territory between France and Holland, the Great Powers accepted independence.  Ooops.

[3] See:

[4] “Belgium’s jihadi problem,” The Week, 8 April 2016, p. 11.

Republican Opinion.

In late March 2016, 52 percent of Republicans opposed the party trying to prevent Donald Trump from getting the nomination, while 36 percent favored such an effort.[1]  A week later, a majority (54 percent) of Republican and Republican-leaning voters thought that Trump should get the Republican nomination if he gets the majority of delegates—even if he doesn’t get the required number of delegates.  Again, about a third of Republican and Republican-leaning voters want someone else—anyone else, even Ted Cruz—to get the nomination.[2]

In early March 2016, a clear majority (58 percent) of Americans thought that the Senate should vote on a Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia.  Slightly more than a third (38 percent) opposed even holding hearings, let alone voting.  That left only 4 percent of Americans who are undecided.  However, two-thirds of Republicans opposed holding hearings or voting until after the presidential election.[3]  (Still, that means that one-third of Republicans disagree.  By late March 2016, opinion had shifted slightly   The great majority (61 percent) of Americans think that the Senate should hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee.[4]  Only about a third (36 percent) thinks that the seat should remain vacant until after the next presidential election.

What do Americans think about the proposal from Senator Ted Cruz that the police patrol “Muslim neighborhoods”?[5]  They are pretty much evenly divided: 45 percent agree with Cruz; 40 percent disagree; and 15 percent don’t know.   The party positions are markedly different, however: 75 percent of Republicans agree; while “only” 57 percent of Democrats agree; and 37 percent of Independents agree.[6]

What might these numbers indicate?  First, Trump has been winning an average of 39 percent of the Republican vote in the primaries, but 54 percent think that he should get the nomination if he has the most delegates.  So, people who don’t want Trump, still think that he should get the nomination if he wins the most delegates.  Most Republicans believe that the Senate should go ahead and vote on the Supreme Court nominee, regardless of what Mitch McConnell says.  The Constitution says that the President shall nominate and the Senate shall advise and consent [or reject] the nominee.  So, a bunch of Republicans think that the Constitution trumps what Mitch McConnell wants to do.  That doesn’t mean that they want conservative predominance on the Supreme Court lost.  It just means that they want the proprieties observed.[7])  In short, the spirit of fair play is not dead among Republicans.

Second, Donald Trump isn’t the only candidate pushing anti-Muslimism.  Moreover, this is an issue that resonates with a majority (54 percent) of Democrats.  To the extent that Hillary Clinton (and the less likely nominee Bernie Sanders) rejects such policies, this may cost them votes.  “Reagan” Democrats aren’t likely to buy into Cruz’s social views.  They might well feel drawn to Trump.

Finally, under the heading of false data as news: Donald Trump’s supporters are almost twice as likely (99 percent) to film themselves having sex than are Hillary Clinton’s supporters.  However, most Clinton supporters are older Americans and predominantly women.  What 60 year-old person is a) going to film themselves having sex, or b) watch it afterward?  None, that’s who.  Unless, you know, there are a lot of Clinton supporters who like watching all that cottage cheese swaying around in poor lighting.  Yuck.  So, really, the Trump supporters aren’t significantly more depraved (at least in this area) than are the Clinton people.[8]  It just makes for a good headline.  Are people really surprised that no one pays attention to the “news” anymore?

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 April 2016, p. 17.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 April 2016, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 4 March 2016, p. 19.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 April 2016, p. 17.

[5] Discretely hang out in the hallal section in the Shop-Rite at the corner of Rte. 309 and Cheltenham Avenue, keep track of who—other than me—is buying goat.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 April 2016, p. 17.

[7] The whole issue of how the courts and especially the Supreme Court came to be so politicized bears further investigation.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 19 February 2016, p. 18.