Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

By Robin Wright 
Two months after its first airstrikes against Islamic State, Washington has finally named its latest military operation in the Middle East. The delay was curious. Maybe it was hard to come up with a title that embraced the massive but amorphous nature of this novelintervention against Islamic State, an extremist movement (also known as ISIS or ISIL) that has gobbled up vast chunks of Iraq and Syria.
The choice–”Operation Inherent Resolve”–has both a loneliness and a longness about it, and even a sadness. It reflects both the dashed hopes of the past and the distance anticipated before future gains. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence either. Indeed, it almost sounds despondent.
Operation Inherent Resolve also stands in stark contrast to the more optimistic names of the past three U.S. wars in the Middle East and south Asia: In 1991, the United States launched the robust-sounding Operation Desert Storm to oust Iraq from little Kuwait. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, launched in 2001, had an idealistic ring to it, especially as a response to the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom was supposed to signal the creation of a new democracy after the toppling of a notorious dictator.
All three of those operations were messier and longer than anticipated. They also had unintended consequences that deferred or muddied straightforward U.S. goals. The military moniker for this newest battle reflects those realities.
A communique issued Wednesday by U.S. Central Command, which is running this operation, explained the choice:
“The name Inherent Resolve is intended to reflect the unwavering resolve and deep commitment of the U.S. and partner nations in the region and around the globe to eliminate the terrorist group ISIL and the threat they pose to Iraq, the region and the wider international community.  It also symbolizes the willingness and dedication of coalition members to work closely with our friends in the region and apply all available dimensions of national power necessary–diplomatic, informational, military, economic–to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”
Whatever the outcome, there are clearly fewer illusions about what it may take to win–in almost any form–this latest war.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


The Ebola Panic and Racism
By Robin Wright 
 The tragedy of Ebola is not just its staggering toll. It's also the implicit racism that the deadly virus has spawned. The anecdotes are sickening, particularly a Reuters report this week that children of African immigrants in Dallas -- little ones with no connection to Thomas Duncan, the Liberian Ebola patient who died Wednesday in a local hospital -- have been branded "Ebola kids" simply because of their heritage or skin color.

In both the United States and Europe, Ebola is increasing racial profiling and reviving imagery of the "Dark Continent." The disease is persistently portrayed as West African, or African, or from countries in a part of the world that is racially black, even though nothing medically differentiates the vulnerability of any race to Ebola.

Newsweek cover last month showed a picture of a chimpanzee with the headline: "A Back Door for Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a U.S. Epidemic." Whatever the intent, the picture was wrong.

Turns out the story was probably wrong, too, as a Washington Post investigation revealed. The new Ebola outbreak "likely had nothing to do with bushmeat consumption," the Post reported, and there is no conclusive evidence that Ebola has been passed from animals to humans. A theory on animal-to-human transmission with some limited traction centers on dead fruit bats, not chimps.

"There is virtually no chance that 'bushmeat' smuggling could bring Ebola to America," the Post concluded.

But the damage has been done. And as panic deepens, the danger is that racism -- on planes and public transportation, in lines, on streets, in glances -- deepens further, too.

Ebola is a human tragedy, just like enterovirus D68, which causes sudden muscle weakness and severe respiratory problems, particularly among children. It has shown up in almost all the 50 states, with about 500 Americans infected so far, far more than ever. And it has begun to kill,beginning with a 4-year-old boy in New Jersey. Five new cases were reported in New Jersey alone on Tuesday. And there are no antiviral vaccines or cures. Yet enterovirus D68 is known by a scientific name and number. (Unfortunately for Africans, the Ebola virus was named after the Congolese river where the first outbreak was detected).

The saga of Thomas Duncan reflects racial perceptions. His girlfriend, Louise, whom he had reportedly been visiting in Dallas, had publicly begged for him to be given the same experimental ZMapp medication given to two (white) American missionaries who were infected in Africa and recently flown back to the United States.

"I'm just asking God and asking the American government for the same medicine they're giving people that come from Liberia," she said during an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper. "Please, please, please, please, help me save his life. ...Talk to doctors. They'll find means to get a medicine to cure him. He's so young."

Louise refused to allow her last name to be used for fear of repercussions. Unfortunately, doctors and the pharmaceutical developer said there was no longer any ZMapp left for Duncan or any other victim. But the imagery that accompanied his plight lingers: Whites can be flown to the United States or Europe at any expense, while Africans are left to die unattended on the streets of Liberia or Sierra Leone. Or now, without ZMapp, in Dallas.

"It's easy for the world -- the powerful world, who are largely non-African, non-people of color -- to ignore the suffering of poor, black people," Harvard Medical School professor Joia Mukherjee said on PRI's "The World" last month. It's easy, she said, to "other-ize" the Ebola crisis.

Fear too often contorts morality and humanity.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Why Kobani Matters: 
The US Litmus Test
By Robin Wright 
Very few Americans had heard of Kobani until a couple of days ago. But the sleepy Syrian border town, a few football fields away from Turkey, has become a microcosm of the U.S. challenge in fighting Islamic State—and underscores why Syria is likely to be a far tougher campaign than Iraq.

Whatever happens this week, Kobani has strategic value now and down the road. It is the access route into Turkey, an important NATO ally of the United States and a country that literally spans Asia and Europe. Kobani–also known as Ayn al-Arab, or Spring of the Arabs–has long been the route of trains and trucks between Turkey and Syria.

So whoever controls Kobani also controls a gateway on an important border. On Monday, Islamic State fighters penetrated enough of the city to plant their chilling black flag atop a building within a mile of the city center–and visible from Turkey.

To halt the militants’ three-week-old offensive, U.S. warplanes began dropping bombs around Kobani on Monday. The strikes, which continued on Tuesday, have taken out five armed vehicles, a tank and something that’s been only vaguely described as an “IS unit,” according to U.S. Central Command reports.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to the border Tuesday to warn thatU.S.-led airstrikes are not enough to stop Islamic State extremists–in Kobani or elsewhere. He is probably right–for several reasons.

First, Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has the advantage in arms and numbers against a motley collection of Kurdish fighters with limited skills and vintage equipment. The Kurdish militia, notably including female fighters, has fought nobly over the past month. But ISIS has bigger and better stuff, including American war materiel seized from the Iraqi army and brought back into Syria. The tank that U.S. strikes destroyed this week may well have been of American origin.

The United States has said it will work with local forces. But there’s a profound difference–actually, a huge military imbalance–between the capabilities of sophisticated warplanes and a modest and outnumbered militia on the ground (some of whose members still wear the baggy trousers of traditional Kurds).

Second, thundering air power can be daunting, but sometimes the effect is more psychological than physical. Finding conspicuous, clear-cut targets isn’t easy, especially once fighters are no longer on open roads, or manning exposed checkpoints, or commanding artillery or tanks. Look at Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Hamas survived, as it has in past showdowns, even though Israel has vastly more capable war planes as well as air defense systems to block Hamas rockets. Hamas could be elusive. So is ISIS.

The daily communiques from U.S. Central Command are telling. Big costly bombs fired by big costly warplanes have been knocking a fair number of “armed vehicles,” which may be little more than a pick-up truck with a weapon mounted on the back. But they have not yet set back the ISIS campaign in Syria.

In Iraq, airpower has made a difference since the United States intervened on Aug. 8, though the gains have been strikingly small so far.
U.S. bombs initially changed the military dynamics in Iraq, buying at least a bit of time. American intervention helped save thousands of Yazidis who had been stranded on Mount Sinjar, surrounded by ISIS extremists. It helped prevent Islamic State from moving into Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. And it pushed ISIS militants away from the strategic Mosul Dam.

In Syria, however, the goals, targets, and impact are likely to be far harder.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

On Jewish and Muslim Holidays, A Reminder of Commonalities
By Robin Wright 
The world’s Jews begin marking the holiest time of their year Friday in Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement, which begins at dusk, is observed with reflection, repentance for sins of the past year, and fasting.
Also Friday, Muslims around the world begin marking the holiest day on their religious calendar. The Day of Arafat, the most important part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, is a time of atoning for past sins and praying for forgiveness. Many Muslims who are not in the holy city of Mecca often fast from afar.
If only…
It is no accident that the two faiths share common history and common prophets. For Jews, Abraham was the first of their faith, its literal father. His life is chronicled in the Old Testament.
For Muslims, Abraham is the father of all three monotheistic religions beginning with Judaism. The Eid al-Adha, part of the Haj immediately after the Day of Arafat, marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to prove his love and loyalty to God. His life is chronicled in the Koran.
If only…
For all their rivalries, the two faiths have played important roles in each other’s past–in positive ways. The Ottoman empire formally invited Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal to immigrate in the late 15th century. Sultan Beyazid II reportedly said, “Ye call Ferdinand a wise king, he who makes his land poor and ours rich!”
During World War II, Morocco’s King Mohammed V decreed that the 200,000 Jews in the predominantly Muslim country should not wear the yellow star, as they did in Nazi-occupied France. “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only subjects,” he said.
One of Judaism’s most important rabbis was Maimonides, who was appointed court physician by Saladdin, one of history’s most powerful Muslim leaders. Maimonides’ philosophical works were recognized in both the Islamic and Jewish worlds.
The two religions share many practical traditions too: Their traditional calendars are lunar, based on the cycles of the moon instead of the sun. The observant practice the same dietary laws of no blood, carrion, or swine. The observant require modest dress of women, including hair covering, and beards and a prayer cap for men. They both believe in the core daily struggle to faithfully observe the faith.
The two religions have much more in common, even their greetings: Shalom in Hebrew, Salam in Arabic. Both mean peace.

If only….