Bomb, advise, assist: Why Obama has few options against IS

As originally posted by The Globe and Mail.

By Steve Saideman

There are many good reasons why President Barack Obama has been reluctant to get the U.S. directly involved in Syria’s civil war. The U.S. has already fought a number of wars and lesser conflicts in the Mideast since the terror attacks of September 11, with none leading to a satisfying outcome. This has exhausted the American armed forces, tested the patience of the American people, and cost trillions of dollars that can never be recouped. Until recently, public opinion was against any more conflict in or near Syria. Congress, too, has given Mr. Obama yet more reason to avoid involvement in Syria. The Republicans would prefer not to give him authority to act while complaining that the President is too weak and lacking leadership.

Leaving aside the complex domestic constraints, Mr. Obama faces a very serious problem in Syria: who to support? By fighting the Islamic State, Mr. Obama may end up supporting the Assad Regime. This is similar to the problem in Iraq, where helping Iraq might mean helping Iran. At least in Iraq there are two elements that the U.S. can support with only some qualms. The Kurds have a somewhat competent force, and they have done nearly all of the right things to suggest that they have popular support and, most important, are unlikely to turn their guns against the Americans. The government of Iraq could be an ally of the U.S. in this, especially since its interests are more directly implicated. The problem has been that the Shia-dominated government has broken the various agreements the U.S. had made with the Sunnis during the so-called Anbar Awakening. That movement was as – or more – essential to the decline in violence as the American surge.

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A less-violent, illicit drug market? It is possible

By Jean Daudelin

The Americas are slowly moving towards the full legalization of cannabis. Uruguay is still alone among national governments to have gone all the way, but for marijuana at least, hard-line prohibition is quickly being replaced by a range of flexible arrangements, from the legalization of ‘personal doses,’ to the decriminalization of possession – as in the ‘ticket’ option being considered by Canada’s Justice Minister, Peter MacKay.

These changes are long overdue, and the fuller the liberalization, the better, in spite of the increase in consumption which should logically follow the drop in price and the lifting of sanctions. The benefits of consumption are most likely limited, but the potential negative health and social consequences of higher cannabis consumption pale when compared to the massive damage inflicted by tobacco, alcohol and prescription opioids. Moreover, much of the harm caused by the criminalization of cannabis is tied to the huge social and economic impact of marijuana-related arrests and convictions in the United States, an issue that would simply vanish with legalization.

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Ebola: What Went Wrong

By Valerie Percival

The world’s complacency has turned to panic.

Ebola. The very word conjures up fear. No vaccine. No cure. Only about a third to half of those infected survive. The rest endure an excruciatingly painful death as the virus attacks and impairs cell structure and function, causing internal bleeding.

It used to be a disease that struck remote towns, deep in the African rainforest. Deadly, tragic, but contained, and far away.

Yet Ebola is not so far away anymore. The outbreak has gathered momentum, spreading across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, travelling from rural to urban areas. Like a Hydra, it is popping up throughout the region – with cases in Lagos, Nigeria and Dakar, Senegal. And coincidentally, a separate outbreak has hit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where the virus was first identified in 1976.

It’s the largest Ebola outbreak on record. As of Aug. 31, it infected over 3,600 and killed more than 1,800 people across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. (The World Health Organization said this week that the number of related deaths has surpassed 1,900.) Public health authorities caution that the epidemic is underestimated – with many cases unreported due to stigma, fear, inability to access health care services, or because those infected reside in remote rural areas. Experts predict that it could go on for months, infecting tens of thousands of people.

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NATO in Wales: What to expect at this week’s summit

By Steve Saideman

The first thing to know about any NATO summit is that it is much like a conference for an academic — an event that creates an artificial deadline that forces people to finish their papers. The Wales Summit, like preceding summits, mostly recognizes the work done by diplomats in Brussels and policy-makers in the national capitals in the months leading up to the summit. Most of the statements and speeches and papers will have been thoroughly vetted by each member, making most of the event rather boring.

The Wales Summit, to be held this Thursday and Friday, will be more interesting than the average because its agenda will almost certainly be quite different from what was anticipated at the end of the previous summit. Russia/Ukraine is now at the top of the list, forcing NATO to come up with a stance. Still, most of the summit will follow from the tried and true NATO playbook.

Every member’s leader will get to make a speech. The media will focus almost all of the coverage on the speeches by the leader of their country and that of President Obama. This time, unlike nearly any other summit, there will be probably more attention paid to the statements by the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These “frontline” states are far more concerned about Russia’s gambits in Ukraine than most of the members with only Canada perhaps providing strident statements.

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NATO’s Old Playbook Still Comes In Handy

By Steve Saideman

NATO has had an on-going existential crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Built to confront the Soviet Union in Europe, it seemed to have lost its raison d’être in 1991. Quickly, it became clear that the alliance was handy for more than just confronting the big bear to the east.

What can we expect from next week’s summit in Wales? A look back at NATO’s successes shows that despite being slow, flawed and possibly broken, its playbook may provide some clues.

In the 1990s, NATO served as a far more credible and effective peace-enforcer in the Balkans than the European Union or the United Nations AND facilitated the development of democracy in Eastern Europe via improved civil-military relations. Essentially, NATO helped make the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, possible by bombing the Bosnian Serbs, and then providing troops to enforce the agreements after other organizations tried and failed. NATO, too, was able to hold itself together to deal with Serbia when the Kosovo issue boiled over just a few years later.

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Job Posting: Tenure Track Appointment

By Steve Saideman

We are hiring this fall.  We will have two jobs both in the area of intel, terrorism and national security.  I am posting the first job ad below.  It is more specific than the second job, which I will advertise when I get the final ad copy.

Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (Infrastructure Protection, Intelligence, and International Security) – Assistant Professor (Closing Date for applications: October 10, 2014 or until the position is filled)

The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) invites applications from qualified candidates for a tenure track appointment in infrastructure protection, intelligence, and international security at the rank of Assistant Professor beginning July 1, 2015.

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On Intervention: Iraq, not Syria?

By Steve Saideman

August is usually a slow news month, but certainly not this year.  The latest?  That Canada has sent transport planes to Iraq to help the Kurds as well as Iraq deal with the Islamic State movement.  It is only natural to ask the question: why here and not Syria?  Or, why Iraq and not place x, y, or z?

The obvious answer and also the correct one here is: because we can.  That is, Canada can help here and cannot really help that much elsewhere.  The second answer is always true: because there is discrimination in international relations.  That is, countries are selective about where they get involved, with some crises getting more attention and effort and others less.

The big difference between the situation in Iraq and the one in Syria is that there is a side that Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and others can assist.  Focusing either on the Kurds or on Iraq itself, there are local allies that control territory and governments.  That outside support can take place with relatively little risk to the outsiders is a key ingredient.  That there is a local ally that one likes or can stomach is a second.  The Kurds have done a nice job since 2003 of positioning themselves as the most reasonable faction in Iraq (not that difficult a task) but also the most competent.  While there are always fears that supporting the Kurds in Iraq might have implications for Kurdish separatists elsewhere, that is dwarfed here by the threat posed by the Islamic State.  Together, these conditions mean that the outsiders can make a difference and would like to do so. 

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