Iraq, again. The occupation of cities there by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an extreme Islamist militia that also seized territory in Syria’s civil war, has Americans revisiting the controversial invasion and military occupation of Iraq, oil traders watching prices rise, and the entire region in a nervy uproar.
The extent of the Iraqi state’s weakness under prime minister Nuri al-Maliki was a shock—some 30,000 soldiers fled before 800 ISIL fighters at the city of Mosul—but the dynamics are no surprise to the people who have been watching closely. It’s not necessarily a lack of US troops that allowed this to happen, but the failure of Iraq’s new government to build a political accord between the country’s three predominant ethnic groups—Shia muslims, Sunni muslims, and Kurds—instead seeking to mimic Saddam Hussein’s heavy-handed approach.
“Maliki’s repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective, and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq,” writes Marc Lynch, a George Washington University political science professor.
While the ISIL gets the attention because its ideology is anti-Western, the Kurds in Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern provinces are deploying some of the same tactics, taking advantage of the chaos to further solidify their dream of an independent Kurdistan.
So, what is to be done? President Barack Obama said US troops would not return to the conflict, but also recognized that ceding a country-sized territory (and one replete with oil) to a group considered too extreme for Al Qaeda isn’t in anyone’s interest. His message was mainly for Maliki, who is begging for American aid: Start making deals, now. “In the absence of this type of political effort,” Obama said, “short-term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed.”
Observers wonder whether the dissolution of Syria and Iraq will finally be the end of Middle Eastern borders drawn by European cartographers after World War I. But that alone should be a reminder: Foreign interventions in the Middle East tend to have unexpected consequences. —Tim Fernholz
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
The 747 is becoming extinct. Overall air travel is growing, but airlines are shifting away from the original jumbo jet. David Yanofsky charts the 747’s decline and the reasons behind it, including high fuel costs, in an appreciation of the iconic wide-body plane.
Bill Gates reviews a book by his favorite author. The Microsoft co-founder says Vaclav Smil’s new history of materials used in modern life convincingly explains how more efficient use of things like concrete, aluminum, and paper paradoxically increases their overall consumption. But Gates says the issue is less whether we’ll run out of these materials, but the toll their extraction and use is taking on the planet.
Your next sweater should be alpaca. Jenni Avins looks at how the fashion industry is buying up the cashmere alternative—and recommends you follow its lead. Alpaca is luxurious and durable, and doesn’t extract the harsh toll on the environment that cashmere goats do.
Globalization is the rule in the world’s most popular sport. Most World Cup athletes spend their time playing outside of their home countries and several nations are only fielding a single player who normally competes at home, as Nikhil Sonnad uncovers in an exhaustive analysis of the rosters. Jason Karaian separately charts the number of foreign-born players on each team, which reaches 15 out of 23 in the case of Algeria.
How Americans can watch the World Cup without paying for TV. Most of the world can watch for free, but in the US the soccer tournament’s broadcast is largely confined to cable TV and online-video services that require a subscription. Zachary M. Seward walks through the different tactics for dealing with that, including one especially well-suited to Spanish speakers.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
The US energy system in 11 maps. Where is the shale oil? Where are the nuclear power plants? How are the power lines laid out? Brad Plumer at Vox makes good use of a new mapping website from the Energy Information Administration to give a high-speed guide to how the US is powered.
The awful predictability of Iraq’s breakdown. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins provides an executive summary of his April article in the magazine (also well worth reading) on how Syria’s collapse, America’s premature withdrawal, and al-Maliki’s sectarianism made Iraq a sitting target for ISIL.
What if three people could have a child? A technique called mitochondrial replacement could allow parents, one of whom has a genetic condition, to have a child safely by mixing in a third person’s DNA. Arielle Duhaime-Ross in the Verge looks at the science and the ethical implications it would have.
Vermeer was a photographer. Tim Jenison theorized that the Dutch painter had used a clever optical trick to make his famously realistic portraits. So the Texan inventor—you may prefer “mad genius” after reading his account on Boingboing—spent a year building a 17th-century music room from scratch, and another seven months painting a picture of it using only techniques available to the master.
Why it’s called ”cerulean.” For those of us who roll our eyes at the ridiculous color names in home-furnishing catalogues, Daniel Lewis’s piece on Zócalo explains how color dictionaries came about as a scientific tool, giving 19th-century naturalists a highly precise common language to describe their observations.
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