Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Tuesday, November 4, 2014, 2:36 PM

All across the United States, people are going to the polls today to vote in this year’s midterm elections.

19.3 million early votes have already been logged in the most expensive midterm election ever. At stake are all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 36 Senate spots, 36 governorships, dozens of ballot measures and approximately 6,000 state legislator posts. As voting begins, the New York Times reports that the GOP is upbeat, buoyed by projections that they stand to gain an average of 9 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate. The Huffington Post’s election model gives Republicans a 79% of taking control of the Senate, while Nate Silver’s says the GOP’s odds stand at 76%. The Washington Post’s model is more bullish, giving the Republicans a seemingly-unassailable 98% chance. If those predictions hold, the right would be able to grab the majority in the upper chamber for the first time since 2006.

While the economy always dominates elections, this year’s contest is also being described as a referendum on President Obama’s administration. His sagging approval ratings have led Democratic candidates in tight races to keep him at arm’s length for the duration of the campaign season. Still, he’s more popular than Congress, which boasts an approval rating hovering in the low teens. A Washington Post article from July of this year outlines some of the reasons Americans from California to Virginia are increasingly frustrated with partisan bickering in Washington, DC.

For political junkies, get excited: the New York Times, Washington Post and Huffington Post all have live updates and constant coverage here, here and here.

For those hoping for a quick resolution to today’s political drama, you may be disappointed; in the hard-fought Senate race in Georgia, a run-off is likely and in Louisiana, one is required. In Alaska’s Senate race, another close contest, voting does not end in some Aleutian Islands until 1 AM EST. If you are aiming to watch the results come in “like a pro,” both Politico and Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution have you covered.

And in case you want an outside view on the US’s exercise in democracy, the BBC provides a perspective from across the pond on today’s events.

If the Republicans do win the Senate, what will that portend for the US economy? Danny Vinik of the New Republic argues that Senate Republicans and President Obama may be willing to work together on a few “small-ball” bills, including ones dealing with trade, the Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage.

At DefenseOne, Molly O’Toole argues that important Defense Committees in Congress will see changes in leadership regardless of today’s results.

Juliet Eilperin and David Nakamura of the Washington Post ponder how President Obama’s political capital has fallen so far just two years after his second nationwide electoral victory.

It is perhaps unsurprising that some US politicians are using recent crises, such as the fight against ISIS and the spread of Ebola, to fear-monger and rouse their supporters. Foreign Policy catalogues some of the most egregious ways candidates are trying to make voters’ minds “go to dark and paranoid places” for their own gain.

Speaking of international crises, Foreign Policy writes that in Iraq, gangs of marauding, pro-government militias are corrupting the fight against ISIS into a mindless assault against Sunni Arab communities.

Also in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Shiites are flocking today to the holy city of Karbala to mark the peak of the ten-day religious ritual of Ashura. While the pilgrimage has so far been “peaceful,” more than 30,000 Iraqi troops have been deployed to forestall attacks on worshippers by some Sunni extremists, who view Shiites as “apostates deserving of death.” The AP has live updates on the situation.

In response to advances by Jabhat al Nusra, US officials are considering whether to broaden their campaign against ISIS to include the al Qaeda-linked group, reports the Washington Post. Militants from Jabhat al Nusra are reportedly within “a few miles” of the Bab al Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, which is one of two areas where moderate Syrian rebels receive supplies from the US and other international backers. Militants affiliated with the group have also seen recent successes in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where they eviscerated moderate Syrian rebels’ strongholds over the weekend.

Yesterday, news outlets reported that Canada officially launched its first airstrikes in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. Today, the CBC reports that Ottawa’s first targets in the region were construction equipment belonging to the militant group.

Reuters has updates on the battle for Kobani between the Peshmerga and moderate Syrian rebels on one side and ISIS on the other.

In the Washington Post, Terrence McCoy explains how ISIS evolved in a US prison.

Foreign Policy features an exclusive scoop today that the US State Department is planning to cut $500,000 in funding for a project investigating Assad’s war crimes. The article asserts that the decision by the US government has raised concerns among activists that the US is reducing its commitments because the interests of Washington and Damascus “are converging” against ISIS.

Yesterday in Saudi Arabia, gunmen killed 5 Shiites that had gathered to mark the holiday of Ashura. Reuters reports that Saudi security officials today shot dead one of the suspects.

In the New York Times, Isma’il Kushkush and Jeffrey Gettleman write that as al Shabaab’s fortunes decline, once-feared militants are abandoning the terror group.

Internecine fighting continues in Benghazi, Libya. Reuters reports that yesterday, a Libyan navy ship was hit and 13 people were killed amid protracted battles between the military and Islamist forces.

The New York Times divulges that France has signed a USD 3 billion deal to arm the Lebanese Army, to be paid for by Saudi Arabia. Lebanon’s army, which has long been seen as a unifying institution within the fractured country, is struggling to respond as Syria’s escalating civil war seeps across the country’s borders.

According to the Associated Press, US Vice President Joe Biden never apologized to Turkey for comments alleging that Ankara helped fuel ISIS’s growth. While the White House said he did apologize for the utterance, which infuriated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Biden himself said in a CNN interview yesterday that he “clarified” what he said but did not recant the remarks.

The Israeli Knesset passed a law yesterday that would restrict early release for prisoners who have been convicted of “particularly severe counts of murder.” The law is aimed at limiting the release of Palestinians convicted of terror charges in goodwill gestures or prisoner swaps. The law, which is not retroactive, would not allow the government to approve early release for said prisoners until they have served at least 15 years. Yediot Achronot has more on the bill’s minutiae.

Speaking of bills in the Knesset, the Jerusalem Post brings us news that right-wing parliamentarians have proposed legislation that would extend Israeli law to settlers living in the disputed West Bank. Such a law would be highly controversial, as it would be seen internationally and domestically as a possible first step towards outright Israeli annexation of the territory.

In Foreign Policy, Gopal Ratnam writes that the top commander overseeing the international military effort in Afghanistan, US Army General John Campbell, is assessing whether or not troops should stay in the country longer than is currently planned. While President Obama’s present plan calls for a complete withdrawal by 2016, Campbell is beginning to take “‘a hard look’” at whether or not coalition forces need to stay beyond that date to train Afghan troops.

In Yemen, US drone strikes killed at least 10 suspected al Qaeda militants today in a central region of the country. The strikes took place amid continuing skirmishes between members of Ansar al Sharia and Shiite rebels, which also killed approximately 10 people. Reuters has more on the instability there.

In what could be a breakthrough development, the New York Times reports that Iran has agreed to export much of its stockpile of uranium to Russia, which would then convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for use in the Bushehr nuclear plant. The move would make it extremely difficult to use the material in a nuclear weapon.

A day after rebel-held elections in eastern Ukraine, NATO’s top military commander, General Phillip M. Breedlove, accused Russia of continuing to support rebel movements in the country.

At the same time, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the election a “farce” that threatened the “entire peace process” and suggested cancelling a key provision of the Minsk peace plan that provides Donetsk and Luhansk with a special status. The BBC has more.

What are the mysterious drones flying over French nuclear sites? A month since they began doing so, French security officials still don’t know, reports the Associated Press.

The African Union has demanded that Burkina Faso’s military hand over power to a civilian ruler within two weeks or face sanctions, reports the BBC.

Here is good news from the Washington Post regarding the Ebola outbreak in Liberia: “the rate of new Ebola infections here has declined so sharply in recent weeks that even some of the busiest treatment facilities are now only half-full and officials are reassessing the scale of the response needed to quell the epidemic.” Yet, officials cautioned against celebrating the current phase of relief too early, with one saying, “in September, this city was under attack by an army of virus. We defeated that army. But now we have terrorists in every part of the country.”

In Pakistan, Jamaat al Ahrar, a group that splintered from the Pakistani Taliban in August, claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack at the Wagah border with India that killed 60. Al Jazeera writes that the attack is the deadliest to hit the country in over a year.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that he will postpone his highly anticipated visit to Vietnam and Myanmar until next year. As crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe shift America’s attention away from Asia, Foreign Policy notes that the postponement will likely only bolster fears that the United States is abandoning its pivot to the Asia-Pacific.

Apropos of the pivot, Foreign Policy also has a round-up of expert opinions on what U.S. President Barack Obama should discuss with Chinese President Xi Jinping when they meet at the APEC summit next week.

The Navy Times reports that the F-35C made its first arrested landing on an aircraft carrier yesterday. You can watch the video here.

In his new role at the Daily Beast, Shane Harris has more on former NSA Chief General Keith Alexander’s interesting stock portfolio. Today, we learn that General Alexander was investing in “an obscure technology company that had a sweetheart deal with one of the NSA’s most important sources of intelligence - the global phone and Internet giant AT&T.”

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zivotofsky v. Kerry yesterday, with Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. telling justices that the case was “the most vexing and volatile and difficult diplomatic issue that this nation has faced for decades.” The New York Times has a rundown of the days proceedings, while here at Lawfare, Wells gives us two “off-the-cuff” reactions to the arguments. You can find the full transcript of the day’s hearing here.

In another phase of the long-going scandal in the US Air Force’s nuclear command, two more commanders have been relieved of duty and disciplined after an internal investigation revealed lapses in leadership and misbehavior at two intercontinental missile bases. The Associated Press has more on the story.

Yesterday, the Financial Times published an op-ed by Robert Hannigan, the new Director of British intelligence service GCHQ, who argues that the challenges terrorist present to security in a digital age “can only be met with greater cooperation from technology companies.” The article, released in Hannigan’s first week as Director, targets American technology companies, saying that “increasingly their services not only host the material of violent extremism or child exploitation, but are the routes for the facilitation of crime and terrorism.” Sam Jones and Murad Ahmed have more in FT on the Director’s decision to go public with his criticisms.

Parting Shot: In paranoid corners of China, a manual on how to spot a spy is now circulating widely on social media.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jack links us to the full transcript of yesterday’s arguments in Zivotofsky v. Kerry.

Wells, who attended yesterday’s Zivotofsky arguments, offers two quick thoughts on the proceedings.

Ben responds to Ryan Goodman’s “interrogation” of the “Parity Principle” in Just Security.

And finally, Jack comments on Walter Pincus’ piece in the Washington Post, noting that, based on current Defense Department procurement orders, no one should “plan on the war now being justified primarily under the 2001 AUMF to end anytime soon.”

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