Better get creative

The world seems to have noticed that the sky might actually be falling.

President Obama announced today that the US would take the lead in supplying personnel and equipment to address the Ebola epidemic that continues to spread faster every day.

Promises of 3000 troops, mainly for logistics, and hundreds of beds’ worth of field hospitals will no doubt be welcome. Britain and France also responded, in a small way. France is sending 24 doctors.

Yet.

Liberia alone is expecting 1,000 new cases next week, and they are out of beds. This matters not just for immediate humanitarian reasons, but to get the infected out of their communities and into isolation. At least half will die, if the trends continue, and the bodies must be disposed of as well.

In contrast, US military officials are talking about two weeks before the first troops arrive and begin constructing a few hundred beds.

On its present trajectory, the epidemic doubles every three to four weeks. There are very likely to be tens of thousands of infections in the coming months. And while there is no way to gauge the actual probability, the chance of a mutation that leads to airborne transmissibility, or unknown carriers leaving the continent, increases with each new infection.

Granted, it is probably impossible to ramp up a response much quicker. But that means bigger plans need to be put into action, if we are to have a chance to get ahead of it.

As quoted by the Times:

Beth Bell, the director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a Senate hearing that while Ebola did not currently pose a significant public health threat to the United States, “there is a window of opportunity to control the spread of this disease, but that window is closing.”

(See also It hasn’t gone away.)

It hasn’t gone away

Although the media seem to have lost interest in West Africa, this chart may jog your memory:

Ebola cases reported - CDC

No?

It’s a chart of reported cases of the Ebola virus since the year it was discovered. Stunning, isn’t it.

This chart, however, is something of a lie. That’s because the 2014 epidemic – and I use the word advisedly – is far from over. Despite the media fatigue. At the end of August the World Health Organization predicted that the present epidemic would ultimately infect more than 20,000 people. Epidemiologists at Virginia Tech forecast something quite a bit more dire, “hundreds of thousands” of cases over 12-18 months.

Here is a map showing the extent of the epidemic to date, not including the latest cases reported from the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

640px-2014_Ebola_virus_epidemic_in_West_Africa

Case numbers aside, the epidemic has already spread 1,500 miles, give or take.

Think about that for a moment. In a few months, and despite poor transportation, the epidemic has covered the ground from Dallas to New York, and will probably infect over 20,000 people. The question is, will it really stop there?

Ebola is a virus, and viruses are funny things. They can mutate rapidly. There is a remote (but no one knows how remote) chance the thing could mutate in a way that enables some form of airborne transmission, instead of its present transmission through contact with bodily fluids. And of course with something that covers this much ground and involves so many people, there is a less remote chance that it will spread much further, via air or ship transport.

Even without mutations or escape routes off the continent, the number of cases is still growing geometrically. Newsweek quotes Anthony Fauci of NIH as saying that the virus is “completely out of control”.

One might think that the international community would announce threat level red and launch the moral equivalent of war to contain it. The most acute shortage is trained personnel. The actual response? Cuba is sending 165 doctors and nurses. Cuba. That’s the largest contingent to date. The U.S. has promised a 25-bed field hospital.

If you thought the media silence meant that the epidemic was over, you may be in for a very rude awakening. We all might.

A victory for moral clarity

It’s hard for the West to understand the full scope of the disaster that’s befallen Libya. It’s happened, in part, because no one in or outside Libya bothered to figure out what the country might really look like after the dictator was gone.

BusinessWeek, August 7, 2014

Early this year, the Libyan Investment Authority filed suit against Goldman Sachs. LIA claims that, “Goldman Sachs abused the relationship of trust and confidence with the then newly-formed LIA…The fund suffered significant losses.”

How significant? In 2008, the LIA made a $1.3 billion investment with Goldman. The money evaporated. For their formidable investment advice, Goldman also received $350 million in fees.

Just Goldman doing what Goldman does, perhaps.

The LIA was formed in 2006. After the Qaddafi regime made a clean breast of its chemical and nuclear weapons programs, and paid reparations to the families of Lockerbie victims, Libya was removed from the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism. Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif drove the establishment of the largest sovereign wealth fund in Africa, seeing it as a way to diversify the Libyan economy away from its dependence on oil. (Although under the table payments from western investment banks may have helped him see the light.)

The Libyans, now able to engage western financial institutions, but not terribly sophisticated, seem to have become the targets of every sharp operator from Société Générale to Goldman Sachs. Which I suppose is just investment banks doing what investment banks do – that is, exploit every asymmetry available to them.

The story might have ended there, with only a slow bleed into the shark pool while Libya learned to swim. But then came Libya’s version of the Arab Spring, only this time with an opposition armed and supported by NATO.

When protesters clashed with Libyan security, western powers decided to take the moral high ground. Libyan government forces had fired on civilians. The Libyan government was therefore evil. The opposition was therefore good. Q.E.D.

With NATO money, weapons, and 26,000 airstrikes, the opposition was, not too surprisingly, victorious. Although you have to stick to a pretty narrow definition of “victory” to appreciate it.

Thousands of heavily armed gangsters daily roaming the streets, kicking down doors and breaking into government ministries, extorting millions on a whim, torturing or killing anyone who crosses them or maybe just looks funny – the victors make Latin American drug cartels look like buttoned-down businessmen doing lunch at the rotary club. You’d rather work for the cartels.

Three years after Qaddafi was killed and nearly everyone involved in running the government either sent packing or summarily executed, virtually nothing in Libya works, except the oil terminals. The one thing the gangsters seem to agree on is to keep the cash coming.

As BusinessWeek put it, “…Libyans who opposed Qaddafi and fought for a more equal and democratic future, have been murdered. Their deaths have passed without any demonstrations…a measure of how irrelevant the causes for which Libyans fought three years ago have become. Libya’s economic future, once touted as the brightest in Africa, looks equally bleak.”

This morass of anarchy is a direct result of “moral clarity” in the west – truly a form of negligence. Focus on one particular ‘evil’, trumpet it long enough and loudly enough, and we can all forget the messy, inconvenient details.

And that is exactly what we have done.

 

 

 

The quagmire deepens

The quagmire of Iraq is merging into the larger morass of the Middle East, the morass growing deeper weekly with the military successes and sensationalized brutality of the Islamic State.

President Obama has taken to describing IS as a ‘cancer’, ordering airstrikes whose objectives are morphing from the humanitarian, i.e. facilitating the escape of persecuted  minorities, to the ostensibly moral, i.e. defeating the ‘cancer’ itself.

Editorials, blogs, and bloviating ‘experts’ made up and mic’ed for TV are ominously warning of the threat to the West. Apparently, jihadists recruited from Europe may go home again and cause trouble there.

The President is wading in deeper, not because he has a plan to fix Iraq, or Syria, or Gaza, or anything else, but because he’s being driven by politics into doing something. Airstrikes are ‘something’; we know how to do it; so we’ll do that. Maybe we’ll be able to kill enough IS fighters that the thing will disintegrate, and we can resume our withdrawal from the region.

Maybe. But the Middle East will not change, because the cancer that eats at that part of the world is not the Islamic State, or even jihadism. It is a cancer that was first planted and cultivated nearly 100 years ago by France and Britain after the First World War, when they carved up the old Ottoman Empire to suit themselves and their thirst for oil.

The cancer is political weakness.

Like many parts of the world, the Middle East is a stew of ethnicities and religions. There is nothing wrong with that. Even disparate peoples who must live together usually learn to get along. They develop commercial and social relationships. They intermarry. But they are also tinder for ambitious political adventurers who are good at striking sparks and fanning flames. (See The Politics of Tinder.) Political power is what keeps the adventurers down and the flames dowsed. Sarajevo, for instance, was once a cosmopolitan European city where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims lived in peace and raised families together. It even hosted the Winter Olympics.

Then the Soviet Union disintegrated, the adventurers came out of the woodwork, and Sarajevo became synonymous with “ethnic cleansing”.

So it is in the Middle East. Autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt understand this all too well, and do whatever it takes to keep the adventurers down, whether it means buying off radical religious leaders or jailing and killing political opponents.

But the fragmentation and weakness of the Middle East go hand in hand with the machinations of Western politicians and security services, who dispense with humanitarian and democratic niceties in pursuit of short term ‘realpolitik’. Like selling anti-air and anti-armor weapons to the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s. Like cultivating Saddam Hussein as a covert client when the Islamic Republic used its weapons to invade Iraq as far as Basra. Like acquiescing to Saddam’s plan to cross the border into Kuwait, because he was such a good covert friend (see April Glaspie).

The only way to grow a civil society is for a government to become strong enough to defeat the anarchists, and to become reliant on tax revenue for its continued existence – not oil or Western aid. This is how the virtuous circle is started and maintained, where a government thrives because its people do, and its people thrive because their government ensures civil order. This was appreciated as long ago as William the Conqueror.

Apparently not so today. It is inconceivable that Western democracies are capable of either helping to bring this about in the Middle East, or even refraining from undermining it, were it to begin on its own. Ultimately the cancer of political weakness persists because we in the West want it to – for many reasons, open and covert, not the least of which is competition for oil.

The US military may well defeat the Islamic State, but the morass of humanitarian, political, and economic issues and conflicts will only deepen, principally because the web of Western interests is a Gordian Knot that no one is willing to cut.

We will instead moralize. Throw political darts. Attend conferences. Announce cooperation and reconstruction. Throw money at our ‘friends’. Kill a few people. Moralize some more.

As we have done for a hundred years.

 

Caveat Texas

A holder of shares…may not be held liable to the corporation or its obligees with respect to:

(2)  any contractual obligation of the corporation or any matter relating to or arising from the obligation on the basis that the holder…is or was the alter ego of the corporation[,] or on the basis of actual or constructive fraud, a sham to perpetrate a fraud, or other similar theory…

Texas Business Organizations Code

Small business owners in Texas have a long history of putting their corporations into bankruptcy and walking away when they get into trouble, only to start up another corporation in the same line of business right down the street, minus those annoying creditors. This is the risk you assume when you do business with a corporation – at least that’s the theory. Good luck finding anyone dumb enough to do business as a proprietorship.

But it’s outrageous when owners are able to strip their corporation of its assets before throwing the thing under a bus. Bankruptcy law is supposed to prevent this sort of thing, but I guess if you’re smart enough to loot your corporate coffers at least 90 days before the thing is forced into bankruptcy, you get a pass. But if you do that, it’s hard to argue you didn’t know your business was faced with some big obligations, and that you had no intention of meeting them.

I don’t know about other states, but caveat Texas. Be careful who you do business with.

The inevitable bombing

U.S. airstrikes are beginning in Iraq. The initial objectives are necessarily limited. But it is hard to see how they can stay that way. President Obama told reporters, “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks…This is going to be a long-term project.”

Project? Exactly what project is this?

The project to remake the Middle East as an American sphere of influence was a hopeless delusion of the previous administration -  delusion, because they apparently believed the peoples of the region would throw themselves at our feet in gratitude; hopeless, because they had no interest in learning the truth.

Is the project to save Iraq? I have harped before on the fact that Iraqi institutions don’t function. They will not begin functioning because we save Baghdad from being overrun. The Shiite powers-that-be will feel even more secure in their autocracy and corrupt political practice.

Is the project to save lives? The Islamic State may be brutal toward its enemies, but the absence of a functioning state that includes the Sunni majority may become a humanitarian disaster in its own right, albeit one we may easily ignore as Western media will not brave the dangers to cover the suffering of daily life, and Western news consumers will quickly tire of it.

In other words, kill enough fighters to stop the fighting, and then we can go home again.

So the project seems to be to manage our own domestic politicians, who are using scenes of fleeing Christians and the bogeyman of ISIS to club the administration, after remaining silent for years while Iraqi PM Maliki gutted the Iraqi army of the officers we trained and tightened his grip on power.

Anything else is probably beyond the capabilities of the world’s largest democracy.

Don’t be naive, right?

The government in Beijing has quietly removed a number of Apple devices from its approved purchasing list, including iPads and MacBooks. Some sort of trade sanction? Nope. They believe iOS has been hacked by the NSA.

They have good reason to believe it. We’ve all heard about the PRISM program, about something called Dropout Jeep, and about Shotgiant.

Shotgiant began as a program to hack into Huawei servers and steal information. But it didn’t end there. It morphed into a program to insert backdoors into Huawei communications products:

Rather than stop at simply collecting more information than it could process, however, a NSA special-operations unit bored into the company’s technical data, eventually compromising servers holding source code for the firmware that runs the routers and switches Huawei builds for large corporations and telecommunications companies.

The goal was to build secret backdoors or security flaws into the source code, which Huawei would then build into its own products and distribute to a customer base so large that Huawei boasts that its products connect a third of the world’s population.

EETimes Asia

More of the ‘good fight’, right? They do it to us, so we do it to them.

Maybe. What strikes me is that it’s a long, long way from the hoary notion that a fully interconnected and integrated world will be a peaceful one, because no one wants to upset the shared prosperity. This may in fact be the long term goal of many a statesman, such as those behind the Euro project. But it isn’t the goal of the security services of Russia, China, or the US. Their goal is much simpler: Beat the other guys.

The security services of at least two of these nations are arguably beyond control of their respective civilian governments. I’m not so sure about China. Beijing might possibly be in control, or the PLA may enjoy even more autonomy than it appears.

The UK’s GCHQ seems to be an adjunct of the NSA. This leaves the rest of Europe, which years ago became a battleground in US-Russia tensions.

To me the underlying reality traces back to the ‘military-industrial complex’, made so notorious by President Eisenhower in his farewell address. It’s really a National Security Complex (NatSecCom?), shifting with the latest designated adversary, that uses secrecy and fear to build careers and acquire power. China has one. Russia has one. And so do we.

Russia may implode. And then there will be two, plus possibly another failed state to add to the list of casualties of the war that never ended.