How It Works

July 23 2014 5:29 PM

China’s Bubonic Plague Response Seems a Little Extreme

Chinese authorities have sealed off the 30,000 inhabitants of the northwestern city of Yumen and quarantined 151 people after a man died of bubonic plague. The man was apparently infected after coming into contact with a dead marmot. "The city has enough rice, flour and oil to supply all its residents for up to one month,” reported CCTV, making it sound as if this might not end for a while.

You might take this story as yet another sign of the end times, but the thing is, bubonic plague isn’t that unusual. There are between 1,000 and 2,000 cases per year around the world, including, typically, a handful in the United States, mostly in the Southwest. The plague may have killed tens of millions back in the 14th century, but these days it's usually treatable with antibiotics.


After China was heavily criticized for its handling of SARS and H5N1 outbreaks, it makes sense that authorities might be especially cautious about stopping a potential new disease outbreak. But given that plague spreads through fleas rather than person-to-person contact and the fact that no other infections have been detected, the reaction here seems a bit extreme.

Unless there's something else going on here that we don't know about yet, it seems like it should be possible to contain this situation without turning a large town into a Camus novel.

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July 23 2014 4:25 PM

When the Crises in Ukraine and Gaza End, Iraq and Syria Will Still Be There

Events in Gaza and Ukraine have, for the time being, taken global attention away from the Syrian civil war and the ISIS’s advance through Iraq. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg sees this as a sign of an international obsession with Israel. There’s something to that, but I think it likely has more to do with novelty. Syria is a long-running conflict. Americans are reminded of it whenever something dramatically changes: use of chemical weapons raising the possibility of U.S. airstrikes, or the conflict expanding into Iraq.

Nothing has happened recently to quite rival the flare-ups happening elsewhere, but the situation has deteriorated significantly. Last Thursday and Friday were the two bloodiest days yet in Syria’s civil war, with more than 700 people killed in fighting between the government and ISIS, the Sunni militant group that recently rebranded itself as the Islamic State. An ISIS suicide bombing in Baghdad killed 31 people, mainly civilians, in Baghdad yesterday, and the group appears to be consolidating its political control over the areas it has conquered and has acquired a new revenue stream by smuggling oil.


Meanwhile, Iraq’s political leaders have so far been unable to agree on the kind of power-sharing agreement likely necessary to confront the insurgency. Iraqi security forces, meanwhile, have been accused of killing civilians with barrel bombs, the same crude and brutal weapon favored by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.

One big problem with the now prevalent “arc of global instability” narrative is that it lumps together short-lived flare-ups of long-running local conflicts with much larger and more transformative events. Sooner or later, the violence in Gaza will be resolved by a cease-fire, though the question is how many more people will die before it happens. The violence in eastern Ukraine flares up and dies down, but despite the understandable wariness in Eastern Europe, it seems unlikely to spread beyond its immediate region.

The twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria are another story: a long-running and increasingly chaotic situation without an obvious political solution, even a short term one. The violence challenges long-standing borders in the region and could increase the risk of international terrorism, and the refugee crisis it has created will continue to place strain on surrounding countries. Given the Iraq war and the deepening U.S. involvement in Syria, I would also argue that it’s the crisis the U.S. bears the most direct responsibility for.

This week’s most discussed tragedies will eventually come to an end. But the chaos in Iraq and Syria isn’t going anywhere. 

July 23 2014 12:09 PM

Why Does John Kerry Keep Saying That Egypt Is “Transitioning to Democracy”?

In a press conference with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry once again described Egypt as transitioning to democracy:

I want to thank the people of Egypt for their hard work in transitioning to a democracy through their election and in making difficult choices with respect to their economy and the future today. 

Kerry had previously been criticized for referring to the military’s overthrow of elected President Mohamed Morsi as “restoring democracy.” Last month Kerry announced that the U.S. was ready to restore relations with Egypt’s government after having briefly suspended some military aid following a crackdown against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The announcement unfortunately came a day before the sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to lengthy jail terms.

Though you’ll never hear it in public, most U.S. officials probably aren’t that sorry that, considering everything else happening in the Middle East at the moment, Egypt is once again under the heavy-handed control of a secular (and for all intents and purposes pro-Israel) authoritarian government. Not so long ago, the country seemed on the verge of a civil war of its own. 

All the same, earlier this week, I defended Kerry from some of the criticism he’s received over recent events. But there’s something Orwellian about repeatedly referring to a government that overthrew its elected predecessor, jails its political opponents and foreign journalists, and conducted a faux election that fooled no one as transitioning to democracy.

July 22 2014 6:24 PM

Pick Your Analogy

What’s the best historical analogy to understand the turmoil and shifting alliances in the Middle East right now?

Writing in the New Republic, Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans sees “uncomfortable parallels” between Europe before World War I and the Middle East today:    

Currently it is the conflicts in the Middle East we have to worry about, with a vicious civil war in Syria between rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while Nato and the US line up behind the other.
Before 1914 the critical trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist passions were overlaid with religious conflicts between Christian states, such as Greece and Bul­garia, and the Islamic Ottoman empire. The Habsburg monarchy, run by a Roman Cath­olic elite, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. … The Balkan states, much like nations of the Middle East today, to a degree stood proxy for larger powers, notably tsarist Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. 

Keep in mind that amid this year’s centenary and a slew of new World War I histories being published, ominous 1914 parallels have also been observed in Ukraine and the East China Sea.

F. Gregory Gause of the Brookings Institution, meanwhile, sees what’s happening now as a “new cold war”:

The best framework for understanding the regional politics of the Middle East is as a cold war in which Iran and Saudi Arabia play the leading roles. These two main actors are not confronting each other militarily; rather, their contest for influence plays out in the domestic political systems of the region’s weak states. It is a struggle over the direction of the Middle East’s domestic politics more than it is a purely military contest. The military and political strength of the parties to civil conflicts, and the contributions that outsiders can make to that strength, is more important than the military balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran.

Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, meanwhile, reach back much further, to the Thirty Years' War, which engulfed Central Europe in the 17th century. Here’s Brzezkinski, in an interview with Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf: 

I see some parallels between what's happening in the Middle East and what happened in Europe during the Thirty Years' War several centuries ago, namely the rising of religious identification as the principal motive for political action, and with terribly destructive consequences. 

All these analogies have their benefits and drawbacks, though as with invocations of 1939, it’s probably wise to be cautious about using them as a blueprint for action.

It may also be that situations in which strong states meddle in the affairs of weaker ones, and violence within those weak states breaks out along ethnic and religious lines are actually not that historically unusual, which is not to say that the latest example of this pattern isn't extremely alarming.

July 22 2014 1:12 PM

The Unexpected Consequences of MH17

I’ve been skeptical about how much the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger jet last week will actually chance the situation in Ukraine, but it may have some surprising effects elsewhere.

Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines have canceled flights to Israel after reports of a rocket landing near Ben Gurion Airport. An in-progress flight from New York to Tel Aviv was reportedly diverted to Paris today.


This is a big deal for Israel, where the tourism and business sectors have generally been fairly well-insulated from Israeli-Palestinian violence. It’s also hard to imagine this happening if not for the increased nervousness of passengers and airlines following the destruction of MH17.

The situations are very different—Hamas isn’t firing advanced, radar-guided missiles—but after last week, I would have to imagine that the previously low bar for what airlines consider an acceptable risk in flying near conflict areas will be raised much higher.

It will also be interesting to see if the incident has any impact on the debate over whether to supply anti-aircraft weapons to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Rebels have made the case that anti-aircraft weapons are needed to neutralize the Syrian military’s air advantage. It was, after all, U.S.-provided Stinger missiles that turned the tide against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Some U.S. congressional leaders have suggested they might be open to the idea of providing anti-aircraft systems to some carefully vetted rebels.

But American commentators are already drawing the connection between U.S. support of the Syrian rebels and Russian support of the Ukrainian separatists. I imagine that it’s going to be harder for the rebels to make the case than the weapons they want will be used responsibly and won’t fall into the wrong hands.

As Milton Bearden, a CIA veteran who worked to arm the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, told me last year, once you give anti-aircraft weapons to a rebel group, “don't try to convince yourself that you're in control.”

July 22 2014 11:31 AM

Guess What: Putin Is More Popular Than Ever

According to a new Gallup poll, Vladimir Putin is now enjoying record-high popularity with the Russian public. His approval rating now stands at 83 percent, up from a low of 54 percent last year. Meanwhile, approval of the United States and European Union has fallen to an abysmal low: 4 and 6 percent, respectively.

The poll was taken in the spring, amid violence in Ukraine and escalating Western sanctions against Moscow but before the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine last week. But it does partly explains why the incident may change the situation less than many are anticipating. Even if U.S.—and sooner or later, EU—sanctions start to have more of an impact, it’s not clear to that Putin will be blamed for it. The Russian public has a very different understanding of events in eastern Ukraine, and that includes culpability for the MH17 crash. 


I'm not sure that U.S. and European leaders hoping to alter the Russian government's behavior can count on public opinion working in their favor. The bigger concern for Putin may be reports that Russian business leaders are furious about the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and Russia’s increasingly isolated political position. So far we haven’t seen any major business or political figures publicly breaking ranks. If that starts to happen, it will be time to start talking about whether this was a game-changer.  

July 21 2014 4:44 PM

Twitter Is Changing How the Media Covers the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York notes that in contrast with previous Israeli-Palestinian clashes, there seems to be a lot more coverage of the Palestinian casualties of Operation Protective Edge. 

This may be partly because of the stark differences in death tolls between the two sides and in particular the shockingly high number of Palestinian children who have been killed. But I suspect one big reason for the shift in tone has been social media.


Twitter was not even three years old when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its last, and far bloodier, incursion into Gaza, and Twitter was certainly not the indispensible tool for gathering and disseminating news that it has since become.

Now, whether or not U.S. broadcast networks and newspapers feature images of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls “telegenically dead Palestinians,” the images circulate. And with nearly all the journalists covering the conflict—reporters on the ground, editors assigning stories, and commentators around the world—plugged into social media as well, it’s hard to imagine their coverage is not in some way influenced by the images they’re seeing online.

Despite the Israeli government’s large social media campaign—in constrast to that of Hamas, whose accounts are routinely blocked—it has undoubtedly been losing the online information war. As the New York Times notes the “hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used in nearly 4 million Twitter posts, compared with 170,000 for #IsraelUnderFire.”

Mainstream outlets also seem to be responding to pro-Palestinian public backlash in a way they haven’t before. When NBC News Foreign Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin was removed from Gaza shortly after reporting on the killing of four boys in an airstrike on a Gaza beach, he was reinstated four days later following a widespread social media backlash. Newspaper headlines downplaying Palestinian casualties have also been roundly criticized

On the other hand, it’s not clear how much difference this will make. Support for Israel remains extremely high in the United States and is increasingly defined by party affiliation. The coverage may be becoming more balanced, but the audience may not have much interest in nuance.

July 21 2014 3:44 PM

“Telegenically Dead Palestinians”

This article originally appeared in Daily Intelligencer.

In many ways, the story of this month’s eruption of violence in Israel and Palestine has been depressingly familiar. But in one interesting way it has been a little bit different from the beginning: American audiences are seeing the story of the conflict, perhaps more than ever before, through Palestinian eyes.
That this is the case is probably something of an accident. But after Israeli extremists kidnapped and murdered a Palestinian kid named Mohammed Abu Khdeir, apparently in retribution for the earlier murder of three Israeli teenagers, police detained and beat up his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir, a 15-year-old Palestinian-American from Tampa, vacationing with his family. It is common for television news broadcasts to carry sympathetic stories of a local American kid tragically caught up in Middle Eastern violence. It is not so common for that kid to be Palestinian. Soon the networks were broadcasting sympathetic interviews with Tariq Abu Khdeir's angry mother. “The Palestinians live like this every day,” Suha Abu Khdeir told ABC. “They kind of say, OK, we'll deal with it. But us, as Americans, it’s just, it’s not human.”


It’s been a little more than two weeks since Abu Khdeir’s kidnapping, and the violence in Gaza has escalated from retribution murders into a military campaign. But in the American press, the human story of the Israel–Palestine conflict—in which more than 400 Palestinians have been killed, and fewer than 20 Israeli soldiers—has stayed, unusually, on the Palestinian side. As the first Israeli mortars began to fall on Gaza, the most arresting and memorable event was the death of four Palestinian preteens killed by fire from Israeli gunboats; moments earlier, the boys had been playing soccer with journalists on the beach. “It looked as if the shells were chasing” the children, one witness told NBC News.
By this weekend, with Israeli troops moving through Gaza, the story’s setting had moved, grimly, to Shifa Hospital. There were “lakes of blood,” a Norwegian doctor working there told Channel 4 News in the U.K. NBC broadcasted from the bedside of a man who had lost 20 members of his family. The AP documented the impossibility of medical care under siege; the doctor overseeing Shifa’s three ICU beds had “made a special wire for cardiac pacing from a spliced Ethernet cable.” On social media, images circulated: the dead body of a reporter, the large-print word PRESS on his chest covered with bloodstains, a father carrying his dead daughter’s body, a guided missile slamming into a residential area. “I’ve seen some truly shocking scenes this morning,” tweeted the Guardian's man in Gaza, Peter Beaumont, on Saturday. “A man putting the remains of his two year old son into a garbage bag.” 3,000 people retweeted that.

Earlier this month, the IDF’s Twitter feed had been full of images of besieged Israelis. But by this weekend Israel was so clearly losing the public relations war that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to reporters, tersely, that Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”
If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them. But his complaint is in itself a concession. The story of the conflict between Israel and Palestine looks a little bit different this time around. Social media have helped allow us to see more deeply inside war zones—in this case, inside Gaza—and allowed viewers much fuller access to the terror that grips a population under military attack. America’s changing demographics (the country’s Muslim population has skyrocketed in the past decade and is now as much as half the size of the U.S. Jewish population) have meant both a more receptive audience for sympathetic stories about Palestinians and more Americans like Abu Khdeir, with connections back to Palestine. The sheer imbalance in the human toll, in the numbers of dead, has been impossible to elide or ignore.
None of this is likely to change the politics of America’s relationship with Israel. The U.S.’s support for Israel wasn't arrived at arbitrarily, and it has withstood some similarly ugly episodes in the past. Palestine is still ruled by ugly politics. But more subtly, I think the way the last two weeks have unfolded in the Western media has made it more difficult for Americans not personally invested in the conflict to simply assume that the Israelis are necessarily right. There is a reason that apolitical celebrities like Dwight Howard and Rihanna were tweeting out messages of support for Palestine. They, like the rest of us, are seeing the Palestinians a little bit less as demagogues and terrorists and a little bit more as they see themselves, as ordinary people living in often impossible circumstances.

July 21 2014 3:09 PM

It’s Not John Kerry’s Fault the World Blew Up Last Week

Secretary of State John Kerry is taking a lot of heat at the moment for a “hot mic” moment just before an interview on Fox News Sunday in which he sarcastically described Israel’s offensive in Gaza as “a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

It was pretty mild as reactions go to the grim civilian death toll from Israel’s bombardment, and I’m guessing pretty mild compared with what U.S. officials say in private, but as Kerry heads to the region in hopes of helping to negotiate a cease-fire, his credibility with the Israeli government is already not particularly high.


This is the latest of a number of examples of Kerry going off-script, and it’s leading to the inevitable perception among many that Kerry is bumbling his responsibilities during a week when a number of simultaneous international crises are blowing up. Before host Chris Wallace played back Kerry’s “pinpoint operation,” he had already been pressing the secretary on the administration’s response to the shootdown of MH17 and the stalling of nuclear talks with Iran.

There’s plenty of room to criticize the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and Kerry in particular—Syria is a good place to start—but it’s hard to lay responsibility for last week’s grim news at his doorstep.

Acting against the conventional wisdom, which held that it was a complete waste of time, it was Kerry who pushed to restart the moribund Middle East peace process in 2013. Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon have a riveting tick-tock account of those talks in the New Republic today, which makes it abundantly clear that while Kerry may have been guilty of hubris, it was the parties involved who were responsible for the breakdown. On the other hand, as the authors note, “since the talks collapsed three months ago, Kerry’s warning about a third intifada has looked far more prescient.” Kerry’s efforts may have been futile, but his argument that time was quickly slipping away for a two-state solution is hard to refute.

As for Russia, Kerry has been about as tough as America’s chief diplomat can be in his rhetoric condemning Moscow for supporting pro-Russian separatists. The United States has already placed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia and is pushing for Europe to do the same.

There’s a tendency to judge U.S. foreign policy on the condition of the world at any given moment rather than the success of actual actions taken. I suspect this is what’s mainly to blame for Hillary Clinton’s slumping approval numbers. But it’s hard to make the case that Kerry’s actions (or lack of actions) contributed significantly to the crises in Ukraine or Israel.

And sometimes there is little tangible evidence of a secretary of state’s greatest successes. Consider that there’s a good chance that without Kerry’s intervention, we would also be seeing the outbreak of full-fledged civil war in Afghanistan this week. Unfortunately for Kerry, one of his more impressive feats of diplomacy may have taken place during a week when everyone was distracted by fires no one could have prevented.

July 18 2014 5:00 PM

Why Is Modern Warfare So Deadly for Children?

It’s striking how many of the recent crises that have received international attention prominently involve violence against children.

More than 40 children have already been killed in Israel’s strikes against Gaza, a crisis that of course began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The killing of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach, as the New York Times’ Anne Barnard put it, “came quickly to symbolize how the Israeli aerial assaults in Gaza are inevitably killing innocents in this crowded, impoverished sliver of land along the Mediterranean Sea.”


Meanwhile on America’s southern border, we’re seeing the consequences of an escalating drug war in Central America in which children increasingly find themselves on the front lines. In El Salvador, murders of children have increased even as the overall homicide rate dropped following a gang truce. (Unfortunately, as my colleague David Weigel notes, this is attracting depressingly little sympathy in Washington.)

Then of course, there’s Boko Haram’s ongoing campaign of terror in northern Nigeria, which attracted international attention after the abduction of 223 girls in April. Most of the girls are still missing.

A new annual report from the U.N. secretary general looks at trends in violence against children in 2013, finding “a significant spike in the killing and maiming of children in several situations, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.” The U.N. also documented more than 4,000 cases of children being recruited and coerced into combat.

Why do today’s wars seem deadlier than ever for children? The New Yorker’s Robin Wright reflects on the issue, writing, “today’s wars are increasingly within countries rather than between them; the fighting has moved to city streets, invading the playrooms of homes and kindergartens.”

This corresponds with the findings of another recent U.N. report, this one looking specifically at Afghanistan, which found that casualties among women and children rose much more quickly than for adult men last year due to a shift from improvised explosive devices to gun battles in heavily populated areas as the most prominent form of violence.

Of course, not all violence against children is incidental, the inevitable result of shifting patters of warfare. There are extensive reports of Central American criminal organizations targeting children for recruitment or as a means of punishing or extorting their parents. Boko Haram’s massive abduction got it exactly the kind of international publicity it craves. The three Israeli teenagers who were killed last month were clearly intentionally targeted, as was the Palestinian teenager killed in retaliation. ISIS has deliberately targeted families with children in Iraq as part of its clash with Kurdish forces. Syrian forces have been accused of deliberately targeting children for detention and torture.

In a world where violence is shifting from battles between state-sponsored militaries to clashes involving nonstate groups fought in communities, children aren’t just often the victims, they’re often the targets.