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.

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.

It’s hard to hold the high ground this way

The Associated Press has revealed a covert program in which the U.S. Agency for International Development “sent nearly a dozen neophytes from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to gin up opposition in Cuba”. According to AP, the recruits “posed as tourists…”, to “recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism.”

No doubt there are many who think this is fighting the good fight. Maybe it is.

Surely the USAID operation was a small one. But it comes on the heels of other “good fights” that wound up destabilizing regions, from covertly arming the Afghan mujahedeen to covertly organizing civil disobedience in Eastern Europe. Which is possibly because realpolitik quickly ends up being about careerism, about playing cowboys and Indians in other corners of the world, and riding off into the sunset after we’ve notched up another ‘win’.

If all is fair in realpolitik, then there are no other principles. All are trumped by whatever the people operating in secrecy deem to be “the good fight”. USAID. The CIA. The NSA. Politicians in Congress. Pentagon bureaucrats. The notion of a world order founded on peaceful sovereign states who respect borders and work through international institutions, so beloved of Western pontificators at the moment (see “Ukraine”), remains a bit of propaganda-fluff, useful to rally masses of people who might think it is actually intended to mean something.

So European.

In light of the epic disasters of Afghanistan (pre- and post-9/11) and Iraq, one has to wonder if Vladimir Putin’s designs on Ukraine could possibly be worse.

 

Meanwhile, the Islamic State

After days of diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently brokered a 72-hour temporary ceasefire in Gaza. This is considered a hard-won victory.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State captured a major Syrian gas field, despite Syrian reinforcements (their announcement here; beware graphic pictures); overran a Syrian Army base near the city of Raqqa, which they now control; and collected recruits defecting from other anti-Assad rebel groups.

Baghdad is almost under siege, even with US advisors and armed drones operating. The Islamic State is consolidating its hold over Mosul, a city of two million.

Kurdistan is pressing the US for arms to help it hold the Islamic State at bay. Washington is loathe to arm the region directly, not only because it would further undercut Baghdad’s already minimal authority, but because it might empower Kurdistan to declare its independence.

Washington is crippled by domestic politics and its inability to deal rationally with militants. Everybody’s a terrorist, and we don’t deal with terrorists. In the meantime, the entire region has devolved into post-Soviet Afghanistan writ large. There, we were able to wash our hands and forget it, until 9/11 brought it back. Not here.

What’s left is covert war, maybe along the lines of the CIA war in Pakistan, but on a much larger scale and with special forces involved, in support of an incompetent sham of a government.

Sounds a little too much like Vietnam, doesn’t it?

 

 

Just when we think we’ve got him where we want him

Is it just me, or is this turning out to be an exciting week?

The US and EU are launching draconian sanctions against Russian banks and energy companies, and against a number of Russian leaders personally. The intent is clearly to tighten an economic and political noose until Russian President Putin either backs down and abandons Ukrainian separatists (and, presumably, Crimea), or is forced from office – although just who could unwind the Russian foray without himself being overthrown in a coup is a big question.

Washington and Brussels would seem to have Mr. Putin where they want him, boxed in and caught right in their sights.

But hold the phone. The Independent claims a scoop, that German Chancellor Merkel is negotiating a deal with Putin to give everyone a way to back down. Major terms:

  • Russia keeps Crimea, but compensates Kiev for lost rent at Sevastopol
  • Russia withdraws support for Ukrainian rebels
  • Eastern Ukraine is granted more self-government
  • Kiev agrees not to join NATO
  • Moscow agrees not to interfere with Kiev’s EU trade relations
  • Gazprom enters a new long-term supply contract for Ukraine

At the very least, if the negotiations are real and become public, the sanctions will undoubtedly be eased, despite gnashing of teeth of western hardliners.

If that happens, Mr. Putin will surely have earned a black belt in political judo.

And Chancellor Merkel’s stature as stateswoman will overshadow, for a time, that of any other western leader.

Plan B

Probably to no one’s surprise, a US Magistrate has ordered the seizure of 1 million barrels of Kurdish oil parked 60 miles outside the Port of Galveston. US Marshalls will seize the tanker should it enter the US territorial limit, which it would now be foolish to do.

What is Plan B for the not-quite independent republic of Kurdistan? Well, they have sold oil to Israel in the past. But now that Baghdad has seen what lawyers are capable of, if the Kurds attempt to repeat this trick, it will undoubtedly land in an Israeli court. Baghdad claims the oil is stolen property. As much as the Israeli government might like to thumb its nose at the US, it doesn’t seem likely their courts could find a way to allow the importation of stolen goods.

Unless Kurdistan were to declare independence. They would need at least one major state to recognize it. And it could only be a state with poor relations with the West.

One comes to mind. But could the Kremlin make any hay out of the breakup of Iraq? Possibly. If Mr. Putin suddenly became the peacemaker in Iraq and Syria.

Something to think about.