The Middle East has confounded outsiders for years, so it is no surprise that another U.S.-led project with a straightforward goal — destroying a marauding organization of extremists — is bumping up against age-old rivalries and a nod-and-a-wink-style political culture.
U.S. secretary of state John Kerry has received backing for the principle of reversing the territorial gains of the Islamic State group in Iraq. But getting concrete assistance is another matter, and there is a whiff of lip service about the proceedings.
Much of the problem lies in the Muslim region's Sunni-Shiite divide, which outsiders tend to underestimate again and again — only to see it emerging as the dominant factor once more. Here's a look at the landscape:
SUNNIS AREN'T INCLINED TO HELP SHIITE REGIMES
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has come out against the Islamic State group and its acts of barbarism in Syria and Iraq. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi clearly reviles political Islam and its militant extension, the jihadis who are tearing up Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt's own Sinai Peninsula. Yet they still have reservations about making a direct move that would be seen as aligning with the Shiite leaderships in Baghdad and Damascus. The issue pops up everywhere: secular Sunnis in northern Iraq actually felt so alienated from the Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki and its anti-Sunni machinations that — at least for a time earlier this year — they genuinely supported the Islamic State group because it was Sunni. Iran factors into this equation as well: although its Persian majority is not ethnically Arab, it is a Shiite nation, and as such supports the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Several days of U.S. lobbying, and a new leader in Iraq more amenable to reaching out to non-Shiites, will not change this. Nor will the U.S. sway Turkey, another Sunni power that has not been pleased with the Islamic State group but is still eager to see the overthrow of its enemy, Syrian President Bashar Assad. The issue has no fix; what is needed is finesse.
U.S. CREDIBILITY HAS WANED
U.S. credibility has suffered in the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001, which doesn't help the recruitment effort. The arguments for invading Iraq have been discredited, and the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns — which went on years beyond the original plan — are not looking successful. Smaller fights against terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen seem destined to continue without end. The Obama administration's swift abandonment of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 shocked allies in the region, most of whom were hardly more democratic than the ousted Egyptian leader. U.S. attempts to work with Islamists, during the brief rule of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, left many concluding that American leadership was naive and its diplomacy inept. When the U.S. threatened Syria if it used chemical weapons, and then did not attack after their alleged use, it was seen as America flinching, even though Assad eventually gave up the arms. In an echo of colonial-era animosities, many in the region see Western leaders who are stirred to action by the beheading of a few Westerners — but not by hundreds of thousands of Arab deaths. Washington also has proven unable to influence its close ally Israel to slow down Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank — one of the few things that can unite virtually all Sunnis and Shiites in angry opposition.
POLITICAL ISLAM IS UNPOPULAR WITH THE GOVERNMENTS
Two years ago, it looked like political Islam was not only ascendant but destined to dominate. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies seemed to have an automatic majority in Egypt, did very well in elections in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and elsewhere, and were becoming dominant even in the Syrian opposition. But the tables have turned dramatically, largely because of the success of the Egyptian military in conflating the Muslim Brotherhood with jihadi radicalism, and by the horrifying actions of Islamic extremists who have harmed the Islamist project as a whole. Today, most governments in the region are working to undermine political Islam, leaving mainly Qatar, which supports the Brotherhood financially and has granted refuge to many of the group's leaders from Egypt as well as Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. Yet even Qatar, under pressure from other Gulf nations, appears to be backtracking, announcing this weekend that several key Brotherhood leaders would be leaving. All this aids the coalition-building effort and helps explain why Kerry is not shown the door.
DEMOCRACY IS NOT SO POPULAR, EITHER
A key slice of the regional elite — educated and globalized, but not starry-eyed — considers the Western obsession with free elections to be naive and destructive. The argument says that societies with high illiteracy, little democratic history or infrastructure, and tribal culture shot through with radical Islamic influences are simply not ready for the responsibility of majority rule. It is better, they reason, to enable a type of managed democracy — like in Egypt where the previously elected Islamist party has been outlawed and decapitated — or a lengthy transition or the kind that is offered by King Abdullah in Jordan. For the United States' current coalition project, this means getting into bed with less-than-democratic countries that, after the frustrations of the Arab Spring, do not welcome meddling in their political systems.
THE LEAST BAD OPTION
The jihadis are aiming for a form of utopia, from their perspective. But most people in the Middle East have grown accustomed to compromise — to accepting and even embracing the least bad option. In this way, secular Palestinians accept Hamas, preferring Islamist oppression to the corruption of secular rulers like Yasser Arafat. Many Libyans are surely nostalgic for their stability and reasonable prosperity under Moammar Gadhafi. There was no political freedom and even the hint of insanity at the top. But it could be seen as less bad than the current situation with two competing governments, neither in control, violent Islamist militias holding Tripoli and Benghazi, and foreign workers fleeing for their lives. Many Syrians are concluding that the Assad regime — secular and commercially competent, if capable of using chemical weapons on its own people — may be the least bad available option as well, if the likely replacement is a coalition of jihadis. Western leaders fret that hitting the Islamic State group in Syria may help Assad, but many in the region find that a palatable outcome, even if they won't say so publicly. Others hope for an optimal solution: Hit the jihadis, and also finally support in earnest the rapidly disintegrating Free Syrian Army — the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels who have almost been forgotten as so much of the region has gone up in flames.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and currently leads AP's text coverage in the region.
ATLANTA (AP) — A new study suggests the growing share of income paid to the rich could raise the costs of a Republican proposal to replace Georgia's income tax with an expanded sales tax.
The new study by S&P shows that income gains to the top 1 percent of earners come at a larger cost to the rest of earners. Not only does rising inequality appear to stunt overall economic growth, but S&P links it to a slowdown in average yearly growth in state tax collections.
Most U.S. economic activity is driven by consumers. But they become less likely to spend their money as median incomes have remained nearly flat for 30 years and remain lower than at the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007. Median household incomes, adjusted for inflation, were $54,045 in July, about 4.6 percent lower than in late 2007.
As part of the study, researchers compared states more dependent on income tax collections, such as Georgia, against states more reliant on sales tax collections. The findings suggest that states with a progressive income tax could better offset the drop in tax growth than states tightly tied to the sales tax.
That finding could have political implications in Georgia, where Republican lawmakers have endorsed replacing the state's income tax with an expanded sales tax, known to supporters as the "Fair Tax." Tellingly, senior Republican leaders have not taken major steps to implement such a system. The S&P analysis did not take any position on Georgia's tax system.
"It would be the perfect storm of bad tax policy," said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute and a former deputy policy director for Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat. Essig was not involved in the S&P study. "If their analysis is correct, it is another strong argument against the Fair Tax and the importance of having a balanced tax stream."
The weak economy has proven a political constraint. Tax collections took a dive during the Great Recession, though they have been climbing upward. Ranking Republicans appear reluctant to jettison the income tax while collections are low, possibly forcing deeper, unpopular spending cuts in core government services such as education, health care and public safety services.
Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, a supporter of the consumption tax, disputed the premise that putting more income in the hands of the wealthy puts a damper on economic growth.
He said that some "of these individuals at higher incomes will hire more people and create new companies, which will provide opportunity for everybody at every income level."
He has pitched variations on the consumption tax theme. For example, businesses on Georgia's border could see losses if Georgia switched to a consumption tax and neighboring states kept lower sales tax rates. Shoppers would have an incentive to buy expensive items in neighboring Alabama, Tennessee or the Carolinas to save money on big purchases. To avoid that imbalance, Georgia could reduce its income tax rates by charging the sales tax on more goods and services, Hill said.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The American strategy on Ebola is two-pronged: Step up desperately needed aid to West Africa and, in an unusual step, train U.S. doctors and nurses for volunteer duty in the outbreak zone. At home, the goal is to speed up medical research and put hospitals on alert should an infected traveler arrive.
With growing criticism that the world still is not acting fast enough against the surging Ebola epidemic, President Barack Obama has called the outbreak a national security priority.
Obama is to travel to Atlanta on Tuesday to address the Ebola crisis during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House said. During his visit, Obama is to be briefed about the outbreak and discuss the U.S. response with officials.
The administration hasn't said how big a role the military ultimately will play — and it's not clear how quickly additional promised help will arrive in West Africa.
"This is also not everything we can and should be doing," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who chairs a Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees African issues, told the Senate last week.
He called for expanded military efforts and for Obama to appoint someone to coordinate the entire government's Ebola response.
"I've heard from organizations that have worked to transport donated supplies and can fill cargo plane after cargo plane but are having difficulty getting it all to West Africa," Coons added, urging government assistance.
Supplies aren't the greatest need: "Trained health professionals for these Ebola treatment units is a critical shortage," said Dr. Steve Monroe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.
Aiming to spur them, the CDC is beginning to train volunteer health workers headed for West Africa on how to stay safe, Monroe said. CDC sent its own staff to learn from Doctors Without Borders, which has the most experience in Ebola outbreaks. CDC will offer the course at a facility in Anniston, Alabama, for the next few months, teaching infection-control and self-protection and letting volunteers — expected to be mostly from nongovernment aid groups — practice patient triage.
"It's gone beyond an Ebola crisis to a humanitarian crisis. It does require more of a U.S. government-wide response, more than just CDC," Monroe said.
Here are some questions and answers about that response:
Q: What is the U.S. contributing?
A: The U.S. government has spent more than $100 million so far, said Ned Price of the National Security Council. Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced it would spend up to $75 million more to provide 1,000 treatment beds in Liberia, the worst-hit country, and 130,000 protective suits for health workers.
The Obama administration has asked Congress for another $88 million to send additional supplies and public health experts, and to develop potential Ebola medications and vaccines.
Also, the State Department has signed a six-month contract, estimated at up to $4.9 million, for a Georgia-based air ambulance to be on call to evacuate any Ebola-infected government employees, and other U.S. aid workers when possible.
"The ability to evacuate patients infected with the Ebola virus is a critical capability," said Dr. William Walters, the State Department's director of operational medicine.
Q: Beyond delivering supplies, what's happening on the ground?
A: The CDC currently has 103 staffers in West Africa working on outbreak control and plans to send about 50 more. They help to track contacts of Ebola patients, train local health workers in infection control and help airport authorities screen whether anyone at high risk of Ebola is attempting to leave.
Two of the CDC workers are in Ivory Coast to try to stay ahead of the virus, helping health authorities prepare in case an Ebola patient crosses the border into that country.
Q: What are the U.S. military's plans?
A: The Defense Department has provided more than 10,000 Ebola test kits to the region and plans to set up a 25-bed field hospital in the Liberian capital for infected health care workers.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby suggested Friday that more could be coming.
"The Department of Defense has capabilities that might prove helpful," he said, adding, "We're having those discussions right now."
Q: Will Ebola come here?
A: U.S. health officials are preparing in case an individual traveler arrives unknowingly infected but say they're confident there won't be an outbreak here.
People boarding planes in the outbreak zone are checked for fever, but symptoms can begin up to 21 days after exposure. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it takes close contact with bodily fluids to spread.
Q: Where would sick travelers be treated? The U.S. only has four of those isolation units where Ebola-stricken aid workers were treated.
A: "There's still a perception in the public that the only place these people can be treated is at one of these specialized facilities like the one at Emory or Nebraska, and that's just not the case," Monroe said. "We are confident that any hospital in the U.S. can care for" an Ebola patient.
After all, five U.S. cases of similar hemorrhagic viruses — one Marburg virus, the others Lassa fever — have been treated in the past decade.
The CDC is telling hospitals to ask about travel if someone has suspicious symptoms, to put the person in a private room with a separate bathroom while asking CDC about testing and to wear a gown, mask and eye protection when delivering care.
"This virus is completely inactivated by all the normal disinfectants used in a hospital setting," Monroe noted.
PARIS (AP) — Diplomats from around the world pledged to fight Islamic State militants "by any means necessary" as Iraq asked allies to thwart the extremists wherever they find sanctuary. Iran and the United States ruled out coordinating with each other, leaving Baghdad's government caught between two powerful and antagonistic allies.
Neither Iran nor Syria, which together share most of Iraq's borders, was invited to the international conference in Paris, which opened as a pair of French reconnaissance jets took off over Iraqi skies. But the State Department left open the possibility of new discussions with Iran later in the week, while precluding any military cooperation.
"We are asking for airborne operations to be continued regularly against terrorist sites. We must not allow them to set up sanctuaries. We must pursue them wherever they are. We must cut off their financing. We must bring them to justice and we must stop the fighters in neighboring countries from joining them," President Fouad Massoum said.
With memories of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq still raw, the U.S. has so far been alone in carrying out airstrikes and no country has offered ground troops, but Iraq on Monday won a declaration by the conference's 24 participant nations to help fight the militants "by any means necessary, including military assistance." An American official said Sunday several Arab countries had offered to conduct airstrikes, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, and there were no public commitments on Monday.
"The threat is global and the response must be global," French President Francois Hollande said, opening the diplomatic conference intended to come up with an international strategy against the group. "There is no time to lose."
The killing of David Haines, a British aid worker held hostage by the militants, added urgency to the calls for a coherent strategy against the brutal and well-organized Sunni group, which is a magnet for Muslim extremists from all over the world. The group rakes in more than $3 million a day from oil smuggling, human trafficking, theft and extortion, according to U.S. intelligence officials and private experts.
Massoum called for a coordinated military and humanitarian approach, as well as regular strikes against territory in the hands of the extremists and the elimination of their funding.
After the conference ended, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met privately with Massoum at the Iraqi Embassy in Paris, telling him that the drive for an inclusive Iraq government had been key to Monday's pledges.
"So I hope you feel that the push and the risk was worth it," Kerry said.
"We are beginning to feel it," Massoum said through a translator.
Fighters with the Islamic State group, including many Iraqis, swept in from Syria and overwhelmed the Iraqi military in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, capitalizing on long-standing grievances against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
When the militants arrived in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the U.S.-trained military crumbled and the militants seized tanks, missile launchers and ammunition, steamrolling across northern Iraq. The CIA estimates the Sunni militant group has access to between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Muslim-majority countries are considered vital to any operation to prevent the militants from gaining more territory in Iraq and Syria. Western officials have made clear they consider Syrian President Bashar Assad part of the problem, and U.S. officials opposed France's attempt to invite Iran, a Shiite nation, to the conference in Paris.
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on Iranian state television, said his government privately refused American requests for cooperation against the Islamic State group, warning that another U.S. incursion would result "in the same problems they faced in Iraq in the past 10 years."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to comment on specifics of any U.S. approaches to Iran, but said "we are not and will not coordinate militarily." Psaki said it was possible that U.S. and Iranian officials would be able to touch on the problem of Islamic State militants later in the week in New York.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Monday that Syria and Iran are "natural allies" in the fight against the extremists, and therefore must be engaged, according to Russian news agencies.
"The extremists are trying to use any disagreements in our positions to tear apart the united front of states acting against them," he said.
Iraq's president, who has said he regretted Iran's absence, appeared ambivalent about Arab participation, saying his country needed the support of its neighbors — but not necessarily their fighter jets or soldiers.
Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have some of the region's best-equipped militaries, and they could theoretically provide air support to a broader international coalition. U.S. officials say the Emirates and Egypt were behind airstrikes against Islamic-backed militants in Libya last month.
Speaking in his first interview since becoming Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi told state-run al-Iraqiyya in comments aired Sunday that he had given his approval to France to use Iraqi airspace and said all such authorizations would have to come from Baghdad.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would continue offering logistical help to U.S. forces and that counterterrorism efforts will increase, describing the Islamic State group as a "massive" security threat. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the threat goes beyond just the recent killings.
"This group poses even more of a danger as it risks exporting terrorists to our countries," he said in his outgoing speech as NATO's top civilian official. "It also controls energy assets. And it is pouring oil on the fire of sectarianism already burning across the Middle East and North Africa."
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten, Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, and John Thor-Dahlberg in Brussels contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The primary season just ended and the general election campaign now unfolding looks the same to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, tea party favorite, foe of immigration legislation and the only Republican senator running in 2014 without a ballot opponent of any stripe.
"Jeff Sessions is probably held in higher esteem than the Alabama football coach and the Auburn football coach put together," says Rep. Mo Brooks, a tea party-backed congressman from the football-mad state.
Sessions has no shortage of detractors, and his good political fortune is a blend of luck and design. It's also one he declines to analyze in any depth as he waits to see if Republicans win a majority this fall and he becomes head of the Senate Budget Committee and leader of an attack on federal deficits.
If so, he said in a recent interview, he will produce a Republican consensus document that balances the budget at least by the end of its 10-year time frame, rather than his own, possibly more conservative, personal blueprint.
Sessions' lack of opposition this fall in a state with a heavy African-American presence stems from a Democratic party weakness so pervasive that it holds none of the statewide offices, only one seat in the nine-member congressional delegation and a minority in both houses of the legislature.
His free ride in the primary was different, though. It resulted from a courtship of the tea party that allowed him to escape the type of primary challenge that dogged GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, bedeviled Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas and nearly toppled Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi.
"I believe the tea party is right on every major issue," Sessions said in an interview. "I say that. They know I believe that ... Taxing more, regulating more, blocking American energy more, bigger government and more welfare is not going to make America a better nation."
Since he ran six autumns ago, Sessions has voted against the federal bailout that President George W. Bush said was needed to prevent an economic collapse, as well as President Barack Obama's economic stimulus and health care law. He opposed numerous increases in the debt limit and a major bill to re-regulate Wall Street after the worst crash in decades. He also aided Sen. Ted Cruz' 2013 overnight filibuster aimed at dramatizing opposition to continued federal funding of the health care law, one of the political highlights of a tea party-backed partial government shutdown.
Sessions says his voting record is designed to represent those in his low-income state who feel ignored by government, rather than to protect big economic entities. Alabama had the ninth-lowest median family income among states in the most recent Census Bureau report on the subject, $43,464 for 2012.
Others take a different view.
Nancy Worley, head of the state Democratic party, said Sessions is "anti-working person, anti-public education, anti-health care reform and anti-most issues that would help just ordinary citizens in the working class."
Benard Simelton, head of the state NAACP, said the three-term senator opposes anything that is "progressive in nature." He recalled seeking a meeting during a 2006 trip to Washington. The senator "was not available," he said, and he hasn't sought to see him since.
Democrats say privately that Sessions is moving slowly in proposing judges for two vacancies in the state, openings that Obama could fill.
Tea party groups are not among his detractors.
"There's only one Jeff Sessions, but we wish we had five more of him in the U.S. Senate," the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund gushed in a campaign announcement. "In fact, this may be the easiest endorsement we ever made," later added the organization that opposed Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, McConnell, Cochran and Roberts.
In an interview, Jenny Beth Martin, head of the group, credited Sessions with taking the time to personally explain why he differed with her on one issue.
Becky Gerritson, head of the Wetumpka, Alabama, Tea Party, said Sessions has been in touch personally more than once to check on the FBI's progress in investigating allegations she made before Congress about the IRS' targeting of her group.
On immigration, Gerritson said Sessions tries "hard to protect American workers and he understands that expanding the labor pool with lower paid" workers won't do that.
The immigration legislation was on the Senate floor for weeks in 2013, when it wasn't clear if Sessions would face campaign opposition.
As the bill's opponent-in-chief, he said it would provide amnesty for millions.
Equally prominent was his warning of harm to low-wage American workers who have suffered much in a weak economy.
The bill's supporters hailed the news when the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would boost the economy and reduce deficits.
Sessions saw it differently.
"It's going to raise unemployment and push down wages," he said. "The impact will be harshest for today's low-income Americans."