TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Says ‘We Don’t Have a Strategy Yet’ for Fighting ISIS

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse"

President Barack Obama seemed to commit the worst of Washington gaffes Thursday when he updated the American people about the ongoing threat from Islamist militants wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse: we don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said of the effort to combat the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in its safe haven in Syria. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of what we’re at than what we currently are.”

Obama’s comment that “we don’t have a strategy,” delivered to reporters at the White House before the Labor Day holiday weekend, prompted immediate mockery from Republicans — not to mention quick damage control from the White House.

“In his remarks today, [Obama] was explicit — as he has been in the past — about the comprehensive strategy we’ll use to confront [ISIS] threat,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a series of Twitter posts. “He was referring to military options for striking [ISIS] in Syria,” Earnest added in a hastily scheduled CNN appearance.

Obama was set to meet with the National Security Council on Thursday evening, and he said his Administration is working hard to develop a plan for stemming ISIS’s spread from Iraq to Syria.

“We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them,” he said. Obama said he’s ordered Secretary of State John Kerry to begin assembling a coalition to strike back at ISIS, while he has tasked Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to present him with military options. “We’re gonna cobble together the kind of coalition that we need for a long-term strategy as soon as we are able to fit together the military, political and economic components of that strategy,” Obama said. “There will be a military aspect to that.”

The President defended his decision not to seek authorization from Congress before beginning strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq three weeks ago, saying the urgency of the threat to the U.S. consulate in Erbil required immediate action. “I can’t afford to wait in order to make sure that those folks are protected,” Obama said. Since Aug. 8, the military has conducted 106 air strikes in Iraq, according to U.S. Central Command.

Obama suggested that once he has a strategy for tackling ISIS, he would seek authorization from Congress, particularly since it may require additional funding. “It is my intention that Congress has to have some buy-in as representatives of the American people,” he said.

“This should be a wake-up call to Sunni, to [Shi‘ite], to everybody, that a group like ISIS is beyond the pale; that they have no vision or ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people,” Obama said. “And as a consequence, we’ve got to all join together — even if we have differences on a range of political issues — to make sure that they’re rooted out.”

Obama also condemned continued Russia aggression in Ukraine, following U.S. and NATO confirmation of Russian ground troops and heavy equipment fighting against the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine, but he stopped short of calling it an invasion. The President ruled out American military action in Ukraine, but said the U.S. stands with its NATO allies in the region and suggested that additional sanctions on Russia will be forthcoming.

“We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem,” Obama said. “What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia. But I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.”

TIME United Kingdom

No, Britain Is Not Poorer Than Alabama

Is the United Kingdom really "poorer than much-maligned Kansas and Alabama"? Er, not quite

Britain just loves confirming the worst about itself. Our tabloids thrive on stories that portray the country as a teeming mass of greedy migrants and workshy idlers, run by a parliament of elites in alliance with a small uber-class of the 1%. The truth is rather more complex than that, of course, but no newspaper will go broke telling Brits that their country’s gone to the dogs.

Take Fraser Nelson’s bleak diagnosis in The Spectator of how Britain compares to the poorest states in the U.S., which has been picked up widely by media on both sides of the pond. If Britain were somehow to become the 51st state of America, Fraser suggests, it would rank near the bottom:

“If you take our economic output, adjust for living costs and slot it into the US league table then the United Kingdom emerges as the second-poorest state in the union. We’re poorer than much-maligned Kansas and Alabama and well below Missouri, the scene of all the unrest in recent weeks. Only Mississippi has lower economic output per head than the UK; strip out the South East and Britain would rank bottom.”

This may shock Americans who stick to an outmoded idea of the United Kingdom as a sceptred isle of pageantry and gentility (though any Yank who has ever visited an urban center outside of London on a Friday night will know that it isn’t all tea and hunting parties). But are our poorest areas really comparable to the worst of Mississippi or Alabama?

The statistics tell only part of the story, and it seems Nelson has rather skewed them to favor his conclusion. In pure GDP per capita, the UK ranks 21st in the world. That’s behind the U.S., at 6th, but ahead of countries such as Italy, Israel and Japan. When compared to U.S. states, it puts Britain in the lower half of the table, nestled between Tennessee and Missouri.

It’s only when you adjust the UK GDP per capita for living costs—that is, when you factor in that a dollar goes further in the U.S. than its equivalent in sterling does in the UK—that the Brits sink to the bottom of the state-by-state listings.

But here’s the thing: Nelson doesn’t appear to have attempted to factor in living costs within the U.S. The idea that a dollar spent in New York goes equally as far as a dollar spent in Alabama is laughable, but the comparison he uses proceeds from that assumption.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds sizable regional differences in the Consumer Price Index, with the South some 21 points below the Northeast. There’s no easy way to work that differential into Nelson’s back-of-an-envelope study, especially as the BLS doesn’t break down CPI by state. But isn’t it a little inaccurate to factor in the living costs of the UK and not the states used as a comparison?

It is also a little simplistic to equate poverty with GDP, which measures business and government spending as well as individual consumer behavior. Poverty is better reflected by rates of joblessness, education level and life expectancy. The UK’s unemployment rate is 6.6%, roughly comparable to New York (36th among the states). The UK has a 91% high school equivalent graduation rate, which would put it in the top 5 among states. And the UK’s life expectancy at birth is over 80; that would rank it among the top 10 states.

None of this is to say that Britain—an island of roughly the same square mileage as Michigan, but with a population almost twice the size of California—doesn’t have huge structural economic problems, or its own areas of persistent blight. But it shouldn’t take an oversimplified comparison to Mississippi to make residents see them.

Nelson does, however, get one thing absolutely right. If there’s one thing the Brits enjoy more than despairing at their own squalid state of affairs, it’s smugly noting that at least the Americans have it worse.

TIME Ukraine

Russian Forces Fighting Alongside Separatists in Ukraine, NATO Says

NATO releases satellite imagery that they say shows Russian combat troops inside Ukraine
A satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and made available to media by NATO on Aug. 28, 2014, shows what NATO says are self-propelled artillery at an undisclosed location inside Ukraine at the time the image was made NATO/DigtalGlobe/EPA

Satellite pictures show convoy of Russian artillery units on Ukrainian territory

Western officials confirmed Thursday that Russian military forces are directly involved in combat alongside Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine, as the months-long civil war escalated in recent days.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced Thursday that it has photographic proof of Russian regular army forces participating in fighting against the Ukrainian military, saying the situation is “increasingly grave.” The Russian movement follows months of fighting following Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year.

“Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia’s military interference in Ukraine,” said Dutch Brigadier General Nico Tak, director of NATO’s Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Center. “The satellite images released today provide additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory.”

The State Department said Thursday that Russia had stepped up its supply of heavy weaponry to pro-Russian separatists, even after a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July, reportedly by pro-Russia separatist groups.

“It’s clear that Russia has not only stepped up its presence in eastern Ukraine and intervened directly with combat forces, armored vehicles, artillery and surface-to-air systems, and is actively fighting Ukrainian forces as well as playing a direct supporting role to the separatist proxies and mercenaries,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

At the U.N., the Security Council convened an emergency meeting on the crisis in Ukraine. “Russia has come before United Nations Security Council to say everything except truth,” said U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. “It has manipulated. It has obfuscated. It has outright lied.”

Russian officials have said that the Russians fighting in Ukraine are on leave, a claim Power rejected. “A Russian soldier who chooses to fight in Ukraine on his summer break is still a Russian soldier,” she said.

U.S. and European nations have already put in place sanctions on individuals and key sectors of the Russian economy, but they have yet to deter the Russian government.

Western officials have stopped short of calling the Russian action an invasion, wary of further escalating the situation, calling the situation “aggression” or an “incursion.” On Thursday afternoon President Barack Obama is scheduled to convene a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the situation in Iraq and Syria, as well as Ukraine.

TIME Infectious Disease

How Nigeria Is Keeping Ebola at Bay

APTOPIX Nigeria Ebola
Nigeria health officials wait to screen passengers at the arrival hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Aug. 4, 2014. Sunday Alamba—AP

Fears that Africa's most populous country would become a tinderbox for the disease have so far not come to fruition

Ebola is still running rampant in parts of West Africa. Over 1,500 people have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where authorities have risked unrest by imposing nationwide curfew and quarantine zones.

But in nearby Nigeria, the government has largely contained Ebola in a single cluster traced back to the first imported case, and reported a total of only six deaths. The death of a doctor in Port Harcourt, in the south of the country, initially raised fears of a second outbreak when it was revealed on Thursday—but it soon emerged that his infection was also linked to the first Ebola case.

Health experts say that while more Ebola cases can’t be ruled out, Nigerian authorities quickly and effectively reacted to contain the disease, tracking people who had contact with patients, conducting widespread testing and quarantining suspected victims. “The response of the government has been robust,” said John Vertefeuille, who leads the Nigeria Ebola response team of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ebola arrived in Nigeria on July 20, when Liberian-American financial consultant Patrick Sawyer flew from Liberia to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Sawyer collapsed at the airport and was taken immediately to hospital, reducing chances of infecting more people in Lagos, a city of more than 21 million people.

He infected a few people before he was isolated, as doctors didn’t initially suspect Ebola and didn’t take full precautions. All other confirmed cases were traced back to him; eight have recovered, with only one case still being treated in isolation.

When the government realized Ebola had arrived on Nigerian soil, it acted quickly to coordinate international health organizations including the CDC, the World Health Organization, and recently Médecins Sans Frontières. It invited those groups to “come to the table and… insert themselves into those structures that the government has formed,” said Vertefeuille.

The work is divided into the management of confirmed cases who are treated in an isolation center in Lagos, and epidemiology and contact tracing, key to containing the virus.

Confirmed cases are treated in isolation, while those the victims made contact with pre-diagnosis are visited daily at their homes. If they develop symptoms, they too are taken to quarantine and tested. Nigeria began its program of contact tracing with Sawyer, and currently has more than 100 people under surveillance in Lagos.

But one man slipped through the net, Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu said Thursday. A Nigerian man who had contact with Sawyer developed symptoms and evaded surveillance, traveling to the oil industry hub of Port Harcourt last month, where he was treated by a doctor for his symptoms.

The man recovered and returned to Lagos four days later, after a manhunt for him had begun. The doctor, however, had contracted the virus and died on Aug. 22. The government has now begun contact tracing for him, and 70 people are now under surveillance there.

The man who escaped surveillance was an isolated case, Chukwu said. The fact that most people being treated at hospital have survived and were soon discharged has encouraged people under surveillance to cooperate. “Initially when we started we had one or two stubborn cases, but now they’re all cooperating,” he said.

As well as taking a rapid response approach to Ebola cases, the government has also been acting to stop the spread of misinformation about the disease. It has been issuing bulletins explaining how the disease spreads, and attempting to dispel rumors about unorthodox “cures” that have spread on the streets and on social media.

Benjamin Akinola, a 65-year-old retired army officer, said he and his wife bathed with and drank water with salt after a rumor suggested it could prevent Ebola. They stopped after hearing on the radio that it led to the death of some people. “People stopped it, and this is what the government is telling us,” said Akinola.

The government has also been pushing for better personal hygiene practice. Guards at supermarkets, banks, restaurants, and clubs will often spray people’s hands with sanitizers before entering.

The public relations operation seems to be working. Lawrence Obioha, a 43 year old newspaper seller in Lagos said initially fewer people attended his Sunday church service out of fear of Ebola. “Gradually it’s picking up,” he said. “There’s a lot of relief now that they know that at least there’s a response to treatment.”

While fears that Africa’s most populous country would become a breeding ground for the disease have so far proven unfounded, officials in Nigeria are under no illusion that the virus has been stamped out. “We have not eliminated the disease. We have not eradicated it,” said Chukwu. Over 200 remain under observation, and the infection is still raging in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The battle against Ebola will continue in Nigeria for some time yet.

“This really could be a long and a hard fight,” said David Daigle, a spokesman for the CDC team on Ebola in Nigeria. “We’re optimistic, but we know that this is like a forest fire and if there’s just one ember left in place it could easily start back up.”

TIME Spain

Go Inside the World’s Biggest Tomato Fight

The La Tomatina festival draws thousands of people to Bunol, Spain, every year

Getting into a food fight is every school kid’s fantasy, but once a year in the town of Bunol, Spain, it becomes a reality.

The objective of the La Tomatina festival is simple: Throw as many tomatoes at other people as you can (or perhaps just roll around in the puree that covers the streets). This year, according to the Associated Press, there were approximately 125 tons of tomatoes and 22,000 participants.

Both residents and non-residents participate in the festival. This is the second year that Bunol charged out-of-towners 10 Euros (about $13) to help paint their town red.

[AP]

TIME Military

America Is Using Cannons to Kill Mosquitoes in Iraq

The wreckage of a car belonging to Islamic State militants lies along a road after it was targeted by a U.S. air strike at the entrance to the Mosul Dam
U.S. airpower has been largely limited to attacking and destroying Humvees and other vehicles inside Iraq. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

The world’s most powerful military is dispatching multi-million-dollar aircraft and their pilots into harm’s way to destroy $70,000 Humvees

The new war the U.S. is waging over Iraq is succeeding. With help on the ground from Kurdish and Iraqi troops, U.S. airstrikes have pushed fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) away from the Mosul Dam.

But the daily details of U.S. military airstrikes only serve to highlight how little American military might can do.

“The strikes destroyed an [ISIS] Humvee,” U.S. Central Command said Wednesday.

“One strike destroyed an [ISIS] Humvee near the Mosul Dam,” Sunday’s announcement said.

“The strikes destroyed or damaged three [ISIS] Humvees,” Centcom said a week ago.

The world’s most powerful military is dispatching multi-million-dollar aircraft and their pilots into harm’s way to destroy $70,000 Humvees.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. gave those vehicles to the Iraqi military, which fumbled them into ISIS hands after the militants overran Mosul and plundered Iraqi arsenals two months ago.

This may be the challenge of 21st century war. The American military, honed by its successes in World War II, is primed to attack militaries that look like it. Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq each presented U.S. war planners with target-rich environments.

But why should anyone confronting U.S. might want to fight on America’s terms? That’s why the U.S. military has been less successful in the target-poor environments of Vietnam, Afghanistan and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

President Barack Obama’s 100-plus airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS targets have beaten the jihadists back. Now he’s weighing an expanded campaign that would attack ISIS targets across the border, in Syria.

But any such action lacks a smart and achievable goal. Attacking ISIS in Syria would make the U.S. a de facto ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whose civil war has killed nearly 200,000. It was three years ago this month that Obama said Assad must surrender power.

Most Americans don’t want more military action in the Middle East. Until they do—and their representatives in Congress are willing to back it with a declaration of war against ISIS—letting U.S. warplanes attack U.S.-built-and-paid-for Humvees inside Iraq may be the best, if unsatisfying, option.

TIME Aviation

Phone Call Offers New Clue in Search for Missing Plane

A Malaysia Airlines plane prepares to go out onto the runway and passes by a stationary Chinese Ilyushin 76 aircraft (top) at Perth International Airport on March 25, 2014 in Perth, Australia.
A Malaysia Airlines plane prepares to go out onto the runway and passes by a stationary Chinese Ilyushin 76 aircraft (top) at Perth International Airport on March 25, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Getty Images

Plane missing since March

Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 turned south earlier than previously thought, Australian authorities said Thursday, providing a new clue to the Boeing 777’s possible location in the southern Indian Ocean.

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said the new information was based on an attempted satellite phone call to the plane by Malaysia Airlines ground staff. However, the broad search area for Flight 370 remains unchanged, Truss told reporters at a news conference in Canberra, Australia. “Over the last few weeks and months, continuing work is being done on refining the information that we have in relation to the most likely resting place for this aircraft,” Truss said…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Syria

U.N. Says 43 Peacekeepers Detained by Armed Group in Golan Heights

Irish members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) sit on their armoured vehicles in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as they wait to cross into the Syrian-controlled territory, on August 28, 2014.
Irish members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) sit on their armoured vehicles in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as they wait to cross into the Syrian-controlled territory, on August 28, 2014. Jack Guez—AFP/Getty Images

Rebel groups, including an al-Qaeda affiliate, are clashing with the Syrian military at the border between Israel and Syria.

The United Nations said Thursday that 43 UN peacekeepers are being detained by “an armed group” at the border between Syria and Israel where Islamist militants are clashing with the Syrian military. Another 81 UN peacekeepers in the area of separation were trapped at their positions, the UN said.

Rebel forces, including the al-Qaeda affiliate known as the Nusra Front, have reportedly advanced on Syrian forces and seized the Quneitra border crossing near where the UN peacekeepers were detained.

Some 1,200 peacekeepers with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force monitor the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights, comprising servicemen from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines.

“The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore the full freedom of movement of the Force throughout its area of operation,” the UN said in a statement.

UN peacekeepers have been apprehended in Syria in the past and released, including last year when a group of Filipino UN peacekeepers were released.

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