Islamic State swept into northern Iraq in 2014, but the door opened for it three years earlier, when the U.S. withdrew its troops from the Middle East country.

Left on their own, Iraqi troops dropped their guns and fled the onslaught. Islamic State militants then ruled the northern city of Mosul and a host of other cities and towns with nihilistic brutality that entailed public beheadings and the use of women as sex slaves. It took three years for Iraqi troops to regroup, and with the help of U.S. military advisers and airstrikes, retake Mosul and the rest of Islamic State-held Iraq.

Today, Mosul slowly rebuilds. The remnants of Islamic State have scattered into the desert. Game over? Hardly. Yes, Islamic State has been vanquished, but Iraq remains fertile ground for a comeback.

The U.S. and Baghdad are stepping up talks about maintaining a U.S. military presence in the country, USA Today recently reported. It’s not known how large an American contingent would be involved, but its role would likely mirror that of U.S. troops in the bid to defeat Islamic State — advising Iraqi commanders and providing surveillance and intelligence help. James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now a foreign affairs analyst, told USA Today that the new contingent probably would be smaller than the current force of 5,500 soldiers.

Keeping American boots on the ground in a part of the world as unstable as Iraq is never an easy decision, but it behooves both Iraq and the U.S. to hammer out a deal.

Iraq’s peace is desperately fragile. Shiite-led Baghdad continues to marginalize the country’s Sunni minority, leaving the nation vulnerable to a resurgence of Sunni-led militancy down the road. Islamist insurgencies have a way of lying low and flaring up when the time and circumstances are ripe.

And consider this: Islamic State doesn’t need a caliphate to maintain its online appeal to lone wolves, like the Uzbek immigrant who killed eight people in Manhattan in a truck attack on Halloween, or the Bangladeshi who tried to blow himself up in a crowded New York subway station Dec. 11.

An American military intelligence presence is needed in Iraq to ferret out and neutralize whatever Islamic State is up to, whether that be web propaganda or suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad. Though Islamic State is beaten in Iraq, “the fight is not over,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said in November. “Even without a physical caliphate, ISIS remains a threat to stability in the recently liberated areas, as well as in our homelands.”

Just as important: A continued American military presence in Iraq, even if smaller than the force there now, also serves as a counterpoint to Iran, which strives for the day when Iraq becomes its proxy state.

Though both Iraq and the U.S. paid a stiff price for the pullout of American troops in 2011, the Obama administration didn’t have much choice. Barack Obama tried to negotiate a deal to keep a contingent of American soldiers there, but Baghdad refused. Opinions vary on whether Obama might have tried harder. But the country’s parliament balked at giving U.S. troops legal protection from Iraqi courts, a condition Obama was right not to accept. Obama was late, however, in realizing the gravity of the Islamic State threat, at one point shrugging off the terror group as “junior varsity.” He later changed course.

Neither the U.S. nor Iraq can afford to again underestimate Islamic State and its bloodlust determination to sow destruction and chaos. A small, focused contingent of American troops can help serve as a firewall to that determination.

Congress bad on disclosing harassment settlements

The San Diego Union-Tribune

The latest report on a Treasury Department fund that pays harassment settlements to accusers of members of Congress further illustrates the lack of transparency that has long allowed lawmakers to get away with bad behavior. The Washington Post story noted that, according to evidence provided by a House committee, $174,000 was paid in 15 harassment settlements related to the behavior of House members from 2008 to 2012.

But with the exception of information about a case involving former Rep. Eric Massa, D-New York, details of the settlements could not be ascertained. The Post also noted that severance payments are also sometimes used to compensate those who file complaints — and that no information was available on these payments.

As bad as the House has been, the Senate is worse. It balks at any public disclosures of settlements. “You cannot solve a problem if you don’t have an idea about (its) scope,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia. Or if you don’t want to solve the problem.

The sad and ugly truth about Jones Act politics

A Bloomberg View editorial:

Who actually benefits from the Jones Act, the 1920 law stipulating that all maritime commerce between U.S. ports has to take place on ships that are built, owned and crewed by Americans?

The American Maritime Partnership, a lobbying group, will tell you that the act supports nearly half a million jobs and each year generates $10 billion in taxes and $46 billion in additional U.S. output. Even if you take these statistics at face value, they fail to allow for the jobs, taxes and output lost in the rest of the economy.

What about the act’s stated purpose — which, together with other laws such as the 1936 Merchant Marine Act, is to ensure that the U.S. retains a robust merchant marine and advanced maritime sector for domestic commerce and times of war or crisis? That’s no more persuasive, once you note the steady decline of shipbuilding and the U.S. oceangoing fleet over the past five decades.

In truth, the Jones Act survives because narrow commercial interests want it to. A protectionist thicket has long surrounded U.S. commercial shipping and shipbuilding. It has gradually hardened into a political wall impervious to economic reason. President Donald Trump spoke the truth in September: When asked whether he would waive the act for Puerto Rico, he said the U.S. has “a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”

Those people are backed by a flotilla of senators and representatives who are failing to put the broader interests of voters first. They include the 60-odd members of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus, one of the bigger and more active of such legislative groups. Filling their coffers and bending their ears are the American Maritime Partnership; the Shipbuilders Council of America; other like-minded industry groups; and scores of individual shipbuilders, shipping lines and labor unions. In 2016, donors associated with sea transport coughed up more than $10 million in campaign contributions — the most since at least 1990 — and spent almost $25 million on lobbying.

The arithmetic of special-interest pleading is interesting. Consider New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, whose $31,000 from sea transport groups put him in the top 20 of Senate recipients in 2014. That winter, he blasted state officials for failing to lay in salt for clearing roads. Without the Jones Act, an available foreign-flag ship could have transported the salt from Maine for $500,000; using slower U.S. barges caused delay, and cost the state $1.2 million. Booker and his fellow senator Robert Menendez, who had unsuccessfully sought a Jones Act waiver, then chided those who “recklessly” called for the act’s abolition.

Nothing seems more perverse, though, than the vocal support given to the Jones Act by the congressional delegations of Alaska and Hawaii. Consumers in states held hostage to relatively expensive U.S. seaborne commerce are the act’s biggest losers. Maritime industries drive neither economy: In both Alaska and Hawaii, shipbuilding and repair provided well under 0.5 percent of employment, labor income and output in 2013. Nonetheless, the Jones Act lobby has been a reliable horn of campaign plenty: In 2016, Hawaii’s senators and two representatives ranked in the top 20 recipients of sea-transport campaign contributions, as did Alaska’s two senators.

Those dollars help to get Jones Act-friendly candidates re-elected. They do less than nothing for the voters of those states and the country as a whole.

Yes, Virginia, one vote really matters

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

One year after a panel of three federal judges upheld Virginia’s law requiring a photo ID to vote, the balance of power in Virginia’s legislature rests on a single vote.

In a recount, Democrat challenger Shelly Simonds won House District 94 race by a final count of 11,608 to 11,607, but a three-judge panel refused to certify the vote Wednesday. It said a ballot that election officials found invalid should have been counted for the Republican incumbent, making the race a tie, which under state law will likely be “settled by lot,” essentially a coin toss.

The result illustrates how much one vote matters. Conversely, it also illustrates how consequential it can be when even a single vote is suppressed by photo ID requirements. A 2014 analysis by the Government Accountability Office of the effect of voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee found turnout dropped 1.9 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively, with likely Democratic voters most affected.

The voters who enabled Simonds to tie a Republican incumbent were part of a Democratic wave that elected a Democratic governor and gave Democrats big gains in the House. Opposition to President Trump has energized Democratic voters, but they are also angry about Republican state legislators who’ve narrowed access to voting and have warped the election results in their favor through gerrymandering.

Those efforts to undermine democracy are being countered by a surge of it, one vote at a time.


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