The Mideast’s Problem Is Politics, Not History

Chaos and conflict have become constants in the Middle East. Frustrated U.S. policymakers tend to blame ancient history. Said President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech, the region’s ongoing transformation was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

Of course, war is a constant of human history. But while today’s most important religious divisions go back thousands of years, bitter sectarian conflict does not. The Christian Crusades and Muslim conquests into Europe ended long ago.

All was not always calm within the region, of course. Sectarian antagonism existed. Yet religious divisions rarely caused the sort of hateful slaughter we see today.

Tolerance lived on even under political tyranny. The Baathist Party, which ruled Iraq and Syria until recently, was founded by a Christian. Christians played a leading role in the Palestinian movement.

The fundamental problem today is politics. Religion has become a means to forge political identities and rally political support.

As I point out in Time: “Blame is widely shared. Artificial line-drawing by the victorious allies after World War I, notably the Sykes-Picot agreement, created artificial nation states for the benefit of Europeans, not Arabs. Dynasties were created with barely a nod to the desires of subject peoples.”

Lebanon’s government was created as a confessional system, which exacerbated political reliance on religion. The British/American-backed overthrow of Iran’s democratic government in 1953 empowered the Shaw, an authoritarian, secular-minded modernizer. His rule was overturned by the Islamic Revolution.

This seminal event greatly sharpened the sectarian divide, which worsened through the Iran-Iraq war and after America’s invasion of Iraq. Out of the latter emerged the Islamic State. The collapse of Syria’s Assad regime has provided another political opportunity for radical movements.

Nothing about the history of the Middle East makes conflict inevitable. To reverse the process both Shiites and Sunnis must reject the attempt of extremists to misuse their faith for political advantage. And Western nations, especially the United States, must stay out of Middle East conflicts.

Heat-related Death Projections Don’t Square with Observations

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

We realize that we are 180° out of sync with the news cycle when we discuss heat-related death in the middle of Northern Hemisphere winter, but we’ve come across a recent paper that can’t wait for the heat and hype of next summer.

The paper, by Arizona State University’s David Hondula and colleagues, is a review of the recent scientific literature on “human health impacts of observed and projected increases in summer temperature.”

This topic is near and dear to our hearts, as we have ourselves contributed many papers to the scientific literature on this matter (see here).  We are especially interested in seeing how the literature has evolved over the past several years and Hondula and colleagues’ paper, which specifically looked at findings published in the 2012-2015 timeframe, fills this interest nicely.

Here’s how they summed up their analysis:

We find that studies based on projected changes in climate indicate substantial increases in heat-related mortality and morbidity in the future, while observational studies based on historical climate and health records show a decrease in negative impacts during recent warming. The discrepancy between the two groups of studies generally involves how well and how quickly humans can adapt to changes in climate via physiological, behavioral, infrastructural, and/or technological adaptation, and how such adaptation is quantified.

Did you get that? When assessing what actually happens to heat-related mortality rates in the face of rising temperatures, researchers find that “negative impacts” decline. But, when researchers attempt to project the impacts of rising temperature in the future on heat-related mortality, they predict “substantial increases.”

In other words, in the real world, people adapt to changing climate conditions (e.g., rising temperatures), but in the modeled world of the future, adaptation can’t keep up. 

America’s Invisible Wars: Event January 25th

On January 14th, the White House announced that Gen. Joseph Votel - the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command – will take over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a position which will place him in charge of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The symbolism of the appointment could not be clearer. As Foreign Policy noted,

“With 3,000 special operations troops currently hunting down Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and another 200 having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration.”

The growing use of special operations forces has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, an attempt to thread the needle between growing public opposition to large-scale troop deployments and public demands for the United States to ‘do more’ against terrorist threats, all while dancing around the definition of the phrase ‘boots on the ground.’ But the increasing use of such non-traditional forces – particularly since the start of the Global War on Terror – is also reshaping how we think about U.S. military intervention overseas.

On the Bright Side: A Deceleration of Sea Level Rise Along the Indian Coastline

Parker and Ollier (2015) set the tone for their new paper on sea level change along the coastline of India in the very first sentence of their abstract: “global mean sea level (GMSL) changes derived from modelling do not match actual measurements of sea level and should not be trusted” (emphasis added). In contrast, it is their position that “much more reliable information” can be obtained from analyses of individual tide gauges of sufficient quality and length. Thus, they set out to obtain such “reliable information” for the coast of India, a neglected region in many sea level studies, due in large measure to its lack of stations with continuous data of sufficient quality.

A total of eleven stations were selected by Parker and Ollier for their analysis, eight of which are archived in the PSMSL database (PSMSL, 2014) and ten in a NOAA sea level database (NOAA, 2012). The average record length of the eight PSMSL stations was 54 years, quite similar to the average record length of 53 years for the eleven NOAA stations.

Results indicated an average relative rate of sea level rise of 1.07 mm/year for all eleven Indian stations, with an average record length of 51 years. However, the two Australian researchers report this value is likely “overrated because of the short record length and the multi-decadal and interannual oscillations” of several of the stations comprising their Indian database. Indeed, as they further report, “the phase of the 60-year oscillation found in the tide gauge records is such that sea level in the North Atlantic, western North Pacific, Indian Ocean and western South Pacific has been increasing since 1985-1990,” which increase most certainly skews the rate trend of the shorter records over the most recent period of record above the actual rate of rise.

Enlightenment Values and the Anglicans

Leaders of the worldwide Anglican church are meeting at Canterbury Cathedral this week, with some observers predicting an open schism over homosexuality. There is fear that archbishops from six African countries – Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – may walk out if the archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, won’t sanction the U.S. Episcopal Church for consecrating gay bishops. Since about 60 percent of the world’s Anglicans are in Africa, that would be a major break.

Supreme Court Should Police Class Action Settlements

In 2009, Duracell, a subsidiary of Proctor & Gamble, began selling “Duracell Ultra” batteries, marketing them as their longest-lasting variety. A class action was filed in 2012, arguing that the “longest-lasting” claim was fraudulent. The case was removed to federal court, where the parties reached a global settlement purporting to represent 7.26 million class members.

Attorneys for the class are to receive an award of $5.68 million, based on what the district court deemed to be an “illusory” valuation of the settlement at $50 million. In reality, the class received $344,850. Additionally, defendants agreed to make a donation of $6 million worth of batteries over the course of five years to various charities.

This redistribution of settlement money from the victims to other uses is referred to as cy pres. “Cy pres” means “as near as possible,” and courts have typically used the cy pres doctrine to reform the terms of a charitable trust when the stated objective of the trust is impractical or unworkable. The use of cy pres in class action settlements—particularly those that enable the defendant to control the funds—is an emerging trend that violates the due process and free speech rights of class members.

Accordingly, class members objected to the settlement, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in approving the agreement and failed to engage in the required rigorous analysis to determine whether the settlement was “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the settlement, however, noting the lack of “precedent prohibiting this type of cy pres award.”

Between the Scylla of Disparate Impact and the Charybdis of Disparate Treatment

If federal statutory law expressly commands that all covered federal employees shall be “free from any discrimination based on … race,” does that forbid the federal government from adopting race-based affirmative action plans? That is one of the important—and seemingly obvious—questions posed by Shea v. Kerry, a case brought by our friends at the Pacific Legal Foundation. William Shea is a white State Department Foreign Service Officer. In 1990, he applied for his Foreign Service Officer position and began working in 1992 at a junior-level post. At the time, the State Department operated a voluntary affirmative action plan (read: voluntary as “mandated by Congress”) whereby minorities were able to bypass the junior levels and enter the mid-level service. The State Department attempted to justify its racial plan by noting that there were statistical imbalances at the senior Foreign Service levels, even though the path to the senior levels is unrelated to service at the lower levels.

In 2001, Shea filed an administrative complaint against the State Department for its disparate treatment of white applicants under its 1990-92 hiring plan, complaining that he did not enter at as high a grade as he may have and that the discrimination cost him in both advancement opportunities and earnings. After exhausting administrative remedies, Shea took his complaint to the courts, resulting in this case. The Cato Institute has joined with the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the National Association of Scholars to file an amici curiae brief calling for the Supreme Court to take up the case and reverse the federal appellate court below.

In fairness to the court below, Title VII jurisprudence, as it stands, is both unclear and unworkable. The text of Title VII expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race—what’s called “disparate treatment.” Indeed, in the specific provisions on federal hiring, Title VII employs very expansive language to ensure that disparate treatment is not permitted. But such a “literal construction” of the Title VII statute was eschewed by Justice William Brennan in 1979, writing for the Court in United Steelworkers v. Weber. Relying on cherry-picked statutory history, Brennan found that Title VII’s plain text did not prohibit collectively bargained, voluntary affirmative action programs that attempt to remedy disparate impact—statistical imbalances in the racial composition of employment groups—even if such plans used quota systems. Later, in Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, Cal. (1987), the Court exacerbated the issue by extending the Weber rule from purely private hiring to municipal hiring. In Shea, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit extended the rule from Johnson and Weber to federal hiring, not just municipal and private employment.