It’s striking how much Covid confusion still reigns. Some of the informational miasma is deliberate — there’s profit for some in the bewilderment of others — but much of it stems from the fact that epidemics defy our intuition. So, here are five counterintuitive Covid truths that easily slip beyond our understanding:
1. If a large share of hospitalised people are vaccinated, that’s a sign of success. It has been common to see headlines noting that a substantial minority of people who have been hospitalised or even killed by Covid have been fully vaccinated. These numbers suggest vaccine failure is alarmingly common.
The fallacy only becomes clear at the logical extremes: before vaccines existed, everyone in hospital was unvaccinated; if vaccines were universal, then everybody in hospital would be vaccinated. Neither scenario tells us whether the vaccines work.
So try this. Imagine that 1 per cent of the unvaccinated population will end up in hospital with Covid over a given time period. In a city of a million people, that would be 10,000 hospital stays. Now let’s say that 950,000 people get fully vaccinated, that the vaccine is 95 per cent effective against hospitalisation, and that the vaccine doesn’t reduce transmission (although it does).
Here’s the arithmetic: 500 of the 50,000 unvaccinated people end up in hospital. A total of 9,500 of the vaccinated people would be at risk of a hospital visit, but the vaccine saves all but 5 per cent of them. These unlucky 475 still go to hospital.
The hospital contains 500 unvaccinated and 475 vaccinated people — almost half and half — which makes it seem as though the vaccine barely works. Yet when 95 per cent of people take a 95 per cent effective vaccine, hospital visits fall from 10,000 to fewer than 1,000.
2. Herd immunity isn’t the end of a pandemic. In the simplest epidemiological models, herd immunity is the moment when so many people are immune — either because of vaccines or prior infection — that the epidemic begins to die away of its own accord.
The keyword here is “begins”. An epidemic has momentum, like a train. Herd immunity is the beginning of an uphill gradient, initially very gentle. If the train is moving at top speed as it begins to climb the hill, it will keep travelling for a long way before it stops.
The difference between hitting herd immunity during a raging epidemic — yes, I am thinking of the UK — and hitting it through vaccination during a lull could be millions of unnecessary cases.
3. Masks matter, but not for the reason you think. Microbiologist Ravi Gupta has called the end of mask mandates in England “criminal”, while radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer has said she will boycott the bookshop Waterstones if they politely suggest wearing masks. What is it about masks that ignites such rhetoric?
This is all about the social stakes involved. While you can’t see who’s been vaccinated or who has ignored a ping from the contact tracers, you can see who’s wearing a mask.
I think it is considerate to wear a mask, an act that evidence suggests may protect me, probably protects others and certainly reassures them. For most people, wearing a mask is only a minor annoyance, so why not do it?
Only our innate tribalism can turn mask-wearing from a simple, promising precaution into the dividing line between the saintly and the damned. Cabinet ministers have boasted about removing their masks as soon as possible, which feels like boasting about farting in a lift: it might be a relief but it’s a strange thing to advertise. Once one realises this is about signalling tribal loyalty, it makes more sense.
4. Lockdowns also matter less than you think. It is understandable that we have focused so much on lockdowns. The radical social distancing ministers have imposed has been an unprecedented shift in the way we live, but it has saved millions of lives.
What we overlook is that much of this social distancing would have happened anyway. Many people “locked down” before lockdowns themselves, out of fear or out of consideration for others, or both. The most famous study of this by economists Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson estimated that around 90 per cent of the reduction in consumer traffic was voluntary.
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One need not believe the precise number to accept that people have often acted by choice, through fear or altruism. The flip side is also true: a lockdown that isn’t widely supported is neither effective nor tenable.
All this matters because it is easy to think that everything revolves around the rules. More important is social solidarity, clear information and prominent people setting a good example. Alas, we’ve had to settle for social solidarity alone.
5. Covid was a near miss. After the disruption to life, love, education and commerce, and after more than four million confirmed deaths around the world — with many more unconfirmed and many still to come — it may seem strange to say so. But this could have been far worse. It could have been as contagious (or more) as the Delta variant from day one. It could have been as deadly as Mers, which has killed a third of the people confirmed to have contracted it. It could have attacked children rather than the very elderly. And it could — like HIV — have defeated efforts to create a vaccine.
So while we count the cost, we should also count our blessings — and dramatically strengthen our preparedness for the next pandemic.
Tim Harford’s new book is ‘How to Make the World Add Up’
COP26: Climate Pledges Don’t Match Up With Policies or Consumer Behavior
After more than two weeks of negotiations during the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, diplomats from almost 200 nations finally agreed on two major points: ramp up the fight against climate change and help at-risk countries prepare. Specifically, governments agreed to meet again next in 2022 with more robust plans to slash carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030, significantly reduce emissions of methane (which has even more global warming potential than CO2), and nearly double the aid to poor countries to help them mitigate the effects of climate change. Notably, nations agreed to initiate reductions in coal-fired power and to begin slashing government subsidies on other fossil fuels, representing the first time a COP text mentioned coal and fossil fuels.
Alok Sharma, COP26’s chief organizer, called the Glasgow Climate Pact “a fragile win.”
Acknowledging the deal is imperfect, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry registered his support. “You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and this is good. This is a powerful statement,” he said. “We in the United States are really excited by the fact that this raises ambition on a global basis.”
And while the agreement represents a step forward, it has been roundly criticized by scientists, climate activists and representatives from small, poorer nations who will feel the brunt of the climate impacts much sooner than big, richer ones.
Shauna Aminath, environment minister of the Maldives, denounced the final COP26 deal as “not in line with the urgency and scale required.” The Maldives has supported life and human civilization for millennia, but 80 percent of the archipelago of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean is poised to be uninhabitable by 2050 due to rising sea levels caused by global warming. “What looks balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time,” Aminath said. “It will be too late for the Maldives.”
“COP26 has closed the gap, but it has not solved the problem,” said Niklas Hoehne, a climate policy expert from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Long before the annual climate chinwag, there was an air of futility about what has been described as our “last and best chance” at securing a livable environment for future generations. How could there not be? The leaders of more than 150 countries have been trying to lower humankind’s global warming emissions since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks started more than a quarter-century ago. And since the first summit was held in 1995, global emissions have, instead, skyrocketed.
The summit’s host, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who joined activists in invoking the mantra “keep 1.5 alive“—was unimpressed with his guests, saying during the G20 summit (held in Rome in the days leading up to COP26) that all the world leaders’ pledges without action were “starting to sound hollow” and criticizing their weak commitments as “drops in a rapidly warming ocean.”
Science has put a deadline on us. In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—a limit decided by the Paris agreement—humankind must achieve “net-zero” emissions (i.e., whatever amount we emit into the atmosphere, we must also remove) by 2050. But that target seems highly unlikely. Big polluting nations like the United States, China and Russia not only continue to burn fossil fuels at an alarming rate but also continue to drill for more oil. China—the world’s biggest emitter, responsible for more than a quarter of humanity’s total emissions—and Russia have pushed their own net-zero targets to 2060. India has pushed it to 2070. That is kicking the climate can down the field, to be dealt with by future leaders. (A quick glance at a graphic created by the Economist showing the quick and steep drop in emissions that China must undergo to achieve its own target underscores the magnitude, and perhaps folly, of winning the war against the climate crisis.)
In the United States, a divided nation has ossified a gridlocked legislature that hasn’t passed many game-changing climate laws. Much environmental protection has been exercised through executive actions, such as regulations imposed by federal agencies, which can be simply overturned by the next administration. When a Democrat is in the White House, environmental protection is higher on the priority list. When a Republican is in the White House, it’s more about protecting polluters. The country lacks the necessary strong federal and state climate legislation to protect people and the environment from toxic, global-warming pollution, protect fenceline communities (which are often poor communities of color and Indigenous communities) and hold polluters to account.
One of the bright spots of the summit was a landmark $19 billion agreement between more than 100 nations—together responsible for about 85 percent of the world’s forests—to end deforestation by 2030. Healthy, intact forests are critical in the climate fight as they prevent around one-third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion.
But in a press statement, Dan Zarin, the executive director of forests and climate change at Wildlife Conservation Society, said that the Glasgow Climate Pact “does not mean that the world has solved the climate crisis.” He pointed out that even if all the participating nations’ pledges to reduce emissions (known as “nationally determined contributions” or “NDCs”) were achieved, the world would not hit the 45 percent reduction needed by 2030 to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the Glasgow Climate Pact, countries only agreed to strengthen their NDCs by the end of 2022.
President Joe Biden, who attended the summit, hailed the forest agreement, which aims to restore almost 500 million acres of ecosystems, including forests, by 2030. “We’re going to work to ensure markets recognize the true economic value of natural carbon sinks and motivate governments, landowners and stakeholders to prioritize conservation,” said Biden, adding that the plan will “help the world deliver on our shared goal of halting natural forest loss.”
But activists were less enthused. The forest agreement “is one of those oft repeated attempts to make us believe that deforestation can be stopped and forest can be conserved by pushing billions of dollars into the land and territories of the Indigenous Peoples,” said Souparna Lahiri of the Global Forest Coalition, an international coalition of NGOs and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations defending the rights of forest peoples.
“[R]eferences to the rights of Indigenous peoples are relatively weak” in the Glasgow text, said Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, a lawyer from the Igorot people in the Philippines and chief policy lead at Nia Tero, a nonprofit advocacy group for Indigenous peoples. Specifically, she said that “[w]e will have to watch closely the implementation of [COP26’s] new carbon scheme,” referring to the finalization of rules that will manage the creation of the international carbon market, and were part of the 2015 Paris climate accord.
In addition to the lack of Indigenous representation in the final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact, people from poorer island nations that are most susceptible to the impacts of sea level rise were also underrepresented at the talks, mainly due to COVID-19 restrictions. Just three out of 14 climate-vulnerable Pacific island states were able to send delegates to COP26, while the fossil fuel industry sent more than 500 delegates.
Ultimately, the climate pledges made by nations do not match the climate policies of those nations. And since the pledges are non-binding, there is no legal stimulus to ensure that actual policies line up with those pledges. “The NDCs are voluntary measures,” said Lakshman Guruswamy, an expert in international environmental law at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “There’s no way of implementing, imposing, or trying to enforce a non-binding agreement.”
No penalties, no legal ramifications, no climate court, no climate police. All people have is civil society. It’s up to us “regular people” to stand up, speak up and mobilize; to inspire care for the climate and the environment in young people; and to rethink and retool our own personal behaviors to be in line with the ultimate goals we have for the future. There can be no significant change without the political will behind candidates who will fight against climate change and pressure to hold elected officials to their word. What many U.S. engaged citizens don’t realize is that it’s not enough to participate only once every four years by voting in presidential elections. Real change happens when people take an active role in their local communities. It starts at home, with our families, our friends and our neighbors.
Make no mistake: Our personal decisions as consumers play a decisive role in the state of the global climate. “While large oil companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, we consumers are complicit,” writes Renee Cho, a staff writer for the Columbia Climate School. “We demand the products and energy made from the fossil fuels they provide. One scientist found that 90 percent of fossil fuel companies’ emissions are a result of the products made from fossil fuels.”
Sadly, according to a recent poll, even though a majority of people believe that climate change is a serious issue, few are actually willing to change their lifestyles to help save the environment. “Citizens are undeniably concerned by the state of the planet, but these findings raise doubts regarding their level of commitment to preserving it,” according to the survey of 10 countries, which included the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. “Rather than translating into a greater willingness to change their habits, citizens’ concerns are particularly focused on their negative assessment of governments’ efforts… The widespread awareness of the importance of the climate crisis illustrated in this study has yet to be coupled with a proportionate willingness to act.”
Even if consumers become more willing to adapt their behaviors to make them more climate-friendly, they are not necessarily knowledgeable as to how to make those changes. “[I]ndividual consumers are not capable of identifying the behavior changes that are really worth doing to help the climate,” writes John Thøgersen, an economic psychologist at Aarhus University, in the journal Behavioral Sciences.
Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polling at Kantar Public, which ran the 10-country survey to coincide with COP26, said the poll results contained “a double lesson for governments.”
First, they must “measure up to people’s expectations… [b]ut they also have to persuade people not of the reality of the climate crisis—that’s done—but of what the solutions are, and of how we can fairly share responsibility for them.”
By Reynard Loki
Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, AlterNet, Counterpunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.
Biden’s Botched Withdrawal From Afghanistan Is Consistent With Two Decades of America’s Missteps There
The criticisms against Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan are coming from all corners. But most are missing the point.
President Joe Biden is under a tremendous amount of pressure from his own Democratic Party and the liberal media establishment for daring to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and allowing the country to fall back into the hands of the fundamentalist Taliban regime. Biden, in a statement on August 14, said, “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.” Just two days later, after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled and the Taliban stormed into the capital, Kabul, President Biden in a speech from the White House defiantly maintained that “there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” but was forced to admit that the Taliban resumed control of Afghanistan “more quickly than we had anticipated.”
Republicans predictably jumped on this demonstrable foreign policy failure, neglecting to mention that it was Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump who laid the groundwork for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and worked with the Taliban to do so. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) expostulated, “This debacle was not only foreseeable, it was foreseen,” as if Trump would have done any better as a second-term president. Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview on Fox News with Chris Wallace chimed in, saying, “It looks like the Biden administration has just failed in its execution of its own plan,” even though of course the Democratic president was essentially carrying out Trump’s plan. The Republican National Committee has now deleted a page on its website that had celebrated Trump’s dealings with the Taliban, perhaps hoping no one would notice.
The corporate media was equally unforgiving of Biden. The Washington Post’s editorial board issued a scathing opinion blaming Biden for any future deaths, saying that the U.S. “assumed at least partial responsibility for all Afghans. Leaving them now means walking away from that responsibility.” The Post also worried about America’s global prestige, saying, “at risk is the United States’ reputation as a partner, as would-be allies around the world watch and calculate the value of an American commitment.”
In a similar vein, the New York Times’ Bret Stephens demanded to know, “What on earth was Joe Biden thinking—if, that is, he was thinking?” Like the Post, Stephens was deeply concerned about the nation’s reputation, asking, “What kind of ally is the United States?”
Such criticisms miss several glaring points. First, if a foreign military occupation made no progress toward democracy and human rights in 20 years, it is unlikely to do so in 20 more. Second, they are more concerned about the U.S.’s reputation as a global superpower (which is what the term “ally” really implies) than human lives. And third, although a majority of Americans once supported the Afghanistan War and occupation, today most Americans want the occupation to end.
Moreover, most critics of Biden’s botched exit from Afghanistan appear to have missed the fact that the entirety of the occupation has been flawed and led to the debacle of the Taliban’s resurgence. Biden’s missteps were apropos of the entire occupation. Every step of the way, the United States made the wrong choice, regardless of which president, Republican or Democrat, was in power, from George W. Bush’s decision to work with corrupt and violent warlords, to Barack Obama’s choice to validate the Taliban by being the first to engage in peace talks with the ostensible enemy forces.
Biden’s fellow Democrats also joined in the criticism against him but got much closer to the questions that really need to be asked about the disastrous turn of events in Afghanistan. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal.” More importantly, he made the astute observation that “We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures.”
Even though the U.S.-backed Afghan government has been ineffectual and corrupt directly as a result of choices that successive administrations made over the years, the Biden administration could have chosen to coordinate more closely with the institution if only to ensure that billions of dollars of U.S.-bought weapons would not fall into Taliban hands. Instead, according to Associated Press, “the ultimate beneficiary of the American investment [in Afghanistan’s military] turned out to be the Taliban,” who “grabbed not only political power but also U.S.-supplied firepower—guns, ammunition, helicopters and more.”
To summarize, the U.S. went to war against Afghanistan in October 2001 in order to punish the Taliban and Al Qaeda for the September 11 terrorist attacks, spent nearly two decades fighting a “war on terror,” and ended up leaving its ostensible enemy empowered both politically and militarily. American taxpayers, who naively backed the invasion and occupation, spent trillions of dollars in a brutal decades-long exercise in futility that resulted in lost lives, a traumatized Afghan population and a renewal of the forces that terrorized them.
The Taliban couldn’t have asked for a better war
It may be hard to believe that things could have been even worse under Trump. But if the former Republican president were in power now, it is likely we would be witnessing a similar situation but with even more violence. Former Secretary of State Pompeo in his Fox interview advised the Biden administration to “crush these Taliban who are surrounding Kabul,” adding, “We should do it with American airpower, we should put pressure on them, we should inflict cost and pain on them.” Past wars have demonstrated with striking reliability that such infliction of pain is never precise and always results in so-called “collateral damage,” a euphemism for civilian casualties. Trump had a proven penchant for using massive firepower with no regard for civilians, and with Pompeo offering him advice, we would likely have seen the same situation as we are seeing today but with the added horror of bombs falling on people attempting to flee the Taliban.
The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul is being likened by many to the fall of Saigon. Before the Afghanistan War, there was the Vietnam War. And there were many other wars during and before Vietnam and Afghanistan that garnered less attention. If there is a lesson that Americans as a nation ought to take away from these devastating militaristic exercises that consistently do more harm than good, it is to ensure we never again rally behind a desire to bomb, raid, occupy and militarily strike another nation. This means standing up to the liberal and conservative establishments that find a detached comfort in the cold calculus of warfare with no concern for life, safety, or democracy.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.
Comparisons with Saigon Are Wrong, Afghanistan Won’t Have a Future Like Vietnam
The exit of a superpower. The abandonment of allies. A scramble to the helicopters as gunfire erupted over frightened crowds. The fall of Kabul on August 15 certainly looks a lot like the fall of Saigon, 46 years ago. Yet there is one major difference between the two conflicts, the US’s two longest wars, and in particular between the two American adversaries. The North Vietnamese were fighting a political war; the Taliban are fighting a cultural one. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong had a vision of what the country’s future could be. But in Afghanistan, the Taliban only have an imagined past.
The Vietnam conflict was long and shockingly brutal, but, at the heart of it, were two political projects: in North Vietnam, it was a revolutionary one, seeking to bring about an independent communist society; in South Vietnam, it was a capitalist and pro-American project. It was a political war.
The Taliban’s long battles in their country were, instead, cultural wars. First, to bring their vision of cultural stability to a 1990s Afghanistan ravaged by civil war, and then to expel the foreign soldiers that had toppled their “Islamic emirate.” There was no political project at the heart of it.
Vietnam’s political project allowed it the possibility of change, and indeed just over 10 years after the war ended, the communist ruling party – the same one that had won the war – made changes that ushered in the “socialist-oriented market economy” in place now. A political project at the heart of the conflict allowed that transition.
Not merely is that unlikely to happen with the Taliban, it may be philosophically impossible.
The Taliban are not an organized group with a coherent ideology, certainly not one that is amenable to political change. Instead, their guiding doctrine has been politics informed by faith, but crucially involving complete submission to the interpretations of the emir, the head of the Taliban, and without any structural mechanism to change or reinterpret his decisions.
The nearest thing the Taliban movement has to a codified ideology or set of laws is the layha, a published code of conduct for Taliban fighters that defines aspects of fighting, justice and even governance in accordance with Islamic principles. It is one of the few ways the Taliban leadership can ensure a measure of consistency in how their fighters behave with civilian populations across vast distances.
Even during the five years of Taliban rule in the late 1990s, there wasn’t a central government that imposed standard laws across the country. On the contrary, rules were decided on a more local level, with the inevitable result that more remote communities were much more conservative than major cities.
But the layha is revised centrally and without public discussion. The religious scholars who update it are appointed by the head of the Taliban. Indeed, the text itself says that if fighters face a situation not covered by the layha, they should ask the leadership for answers rather than interpret the text themselves.
This constant need to seek guidance from the leadership will make governing a country of millions, with court cases, foreign treaties, business disagreements and everything else, close to impossible. Assuming the current courts system is allowed to continue, there will be a dual track, parallel justice system. One, riddled with corruption but ultimately backed by the current Afghan constitution, the other a sharia courts system that delivers swift justice, but that has at its head a single man.
That excessive reliance on the judgement of the emir is the primary problem with the Taliban takeover of the country. It means that the assurances, such that they are, made both in this week’s press conference and in previous Taliban statements, that they would respect women’s rights “within the framework of Islamic law” need to be considered carefully – because it will be up to the emir to decide what falls within that framework.
To judge by the photographs of Kabul shopkeepers painting over advertising images of women and reports of people burning their papers and scrubbing their online profiles, Afghans are not waiting to find out what he decides.
Without a political project to steer the country and with a guiding ideology that seeks little more than ridding the country of vaguely defined “foreign influences,” the Taliban have come to power offering nothing other than a return to a long-distant past. Unlike in Vietnam after 1975, there is little chance of their political vision being enlarged or reimagined. That even means the potentially ameliorative influence of other Muslim countries could be limited, because the Taliban are not seeking to emulate or learn from other political projects.
In an article for The New York Times in February of last year, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, wrote that “if we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks.”
There is, certainly, a future for Afghanistan that reconciles the rights enshrined in the 2002 constitution with Afghanistan’s culture and customs, one that could be discovered through negotiations. But the Taliban didn’t fight a war for 20 years in order to start negotiating now.
By Faisal Al Yafai
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East. He is also a frequent commentator on international TV networks such as CNN, the BBC and France 24. Al Yafai has been an investigative journalist for The Guardian, a documentary journalist for the BBC and a writer for other news outlets. He is also an essayists and playwright. Al Yafai has reported from across the Middle East, and from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. He served as a Churchill Fellow in Lebanon and Indonesia.
After Decades of Disastrous US Interventions, It’s Time to Stop Giving Isolationism a Bad Name
Isolationism’s close association with interwar figures such as Charles Lindbergh and Joseph P. Kennedy has long given it a bad name—and not without reason. Yet, 80 years on from the founding of the America First Committee, it is time to reconsider the policy in light of three decades (and counting) of failed foreign policy. From this perspective, the whole of the post–Cold War era must be counted as an immense, lost opportunity.
For decades, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have hurled charges of “isolationist” at any critic who dared question their preferred policy framework—liberal internationalism by name—which, in recent decades, has more often than not amounted to waging war for ostensibly humanitarian ends. Both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, to borrow Charles Beard’s felicitous phrase, have sought to “wage perpetual war for perpetual peace.”
Leveling accusations of isolationism against critics has served their purposes well by short-circuiting debate on the actual merits of one or another policy. Then as now, this is the pernicious utility of labels in American discourse. Calling someone an isolationist has long been an unusually effective way of insinuating that the target of the charge also secretly held other sinister beliefs—such as anti–Semitism. That some high-profile isolationists, such as the late Gore Vidal, were often accused of harboring such views only added to the efficacy of the charge.
Vidal was, of course, aware of this and noted that the tactic was also used to demonize Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Writing in The Nation that year, Vidal observed that during the campaign the word “isolationist” was trotted out…
to describe one Pat Buchanan, who was causing great distress to the managers of our National Security State by saying that America must abandon the empire if we are ever to repair the mess at home. Also, as a neo-isolationist, Buchanan must be made to seem an anti–Semite.
Long before we found ourselves in our current iteration of the mess, serious and unusually courageous foreign policy thinkers were giving isolationism a second look. Figures usually associated with the “realist” school of thought, such as George F. Kennan and Walter Lippmann, were asking whether isolationism might be the right way to go.
As early as 1952, Lippmann was defending the concept of isolation as one that was very much in line with the ideals of the founders. Lippmann cited Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration speech as emblematic of the founders’ foreign policy: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” Lippmann, who, as a young man, counted himself among the most enamored of Wilsonians, now conceded:
… it is becoming increasingly plain that the Wilsonian ideology is an impossible foundation for the foreign policy of a nation… Our people are coming to realize that in this century one crusade has led to another.
While Lippmann was the Cold War liberal par excellence, the crusade in Vietnam only deepened his disillusionment. By 1967 he was, according to his biographer Ronald Steel, routinely accused “of being a ‘neo-isolationist.'” Lippmann countered:
Neo-isolationism is the direct product of foolish globalism… Compared to people who thought they could run the universe, or at least the globe, I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”
By the late 1990s, George Frost Kennan had for decades been one of the country’s most eminent, and heterodox, foreign policy thinkers. Though his reputation in recent years has taken a hit due to the publication of an injudicious biography, Kennan’s thinking on U.S. foreign affairs—in particular on the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons and NATO expansion—is a necessary corrective to what today passes as wisdom.
An entry in Kennan’s diary from November 1996 reads in part:
Waking up yesterday morning, I fell to asking myself whether I could properly be called, in the vocabulary of this epoch, an “isolationist.” The answer is: yes. Being guided strictly by consideration of national interests as opposed to a plethora of other ones, I am indeed an isolationist, though with certain important reservations…
Those reservations were with regard to remaining in our alliances with NATO and Japan. Other than that, to the “great portions of the international community, embracing almost all of Latin America, Africa, and southern Asia… we owe nothing but the dictates of our national interest.”
Kennan’s views on China in the same diary passage would today no doubt get him expelled from the Council on Foreign Relations on grounds of apostasy, and for that reason alone bear repeating. China, wrote Kennan, is
the seat of a great culture which deserves our highest respect. I would like to see us treat them on the diplomatic level with the most impeccable courtesy (which they would understand) but to have, beyond that, as little as possible to do with them… We should guard against allowing our business world to develop any extensive dependence on China in commercial matters…
I should note that I do not view a retreat from the world to “Fortress America” as inherently desirable. And, indeed, under normal circumstances in a normal country run by a non-sociopathic elite, it would not be desirable. But we don’t have that. Instead, we are saddled with an elite that showers money and hosannas on the likes of David Petraeus and John Brennan yet jails truth-tellers such as John Kiriakou and scorns antiwar combat veterans such as Tulsi Gabbard.
If we had responsible people running things, and in all but the rarest of cases we do not, the program of a New Internationalism as laid out by David Hendrickson in his Republic in Peril (Oxford, 2018), is one the country would adopt.
Hendrickson, who is now emeritus at Colorado College, believes that America should not withdraw from the world. It should, instead “reframe the terms of its engagement with it.” Hendrickson writes that the U.S. needs to “return to its tradition of liberal pluralism, rejecting madcap ventures to overthrow the government of states.” The kind of internationalism Hendrickson proposes would be “founded on the old internationalism of the U.N. Charter.” Hendrickson believes a reorientation away from unilateral military intervention and toward the pluralism envisioned in the charter would best serve U.S. national interests. The emphasis would be on diplomacy and reciprocity, “rather than claiming a superior role as judge, jury, and executioner.”
Hendrickson’s is a vision of a foreign policy that would be pursued by the country if it were run by responsible, empathetic, knowledgeable adults.
But the US is not that country. And it has not been that country for a long time.
Therefore, given the out-of-control nature of the people in charge, and given their grandiosity, incompetence, and utter lack of introspection, isolationism along the lines of those suggested by Kennan may very well be the most moral policy choice we could adopt. At a minimum, it should be seriously reconsidered until such time as a generation of American leaders emerges that is not under the spell of either neoconservatism or liberal interventionism.
The current crop of U.S. elites cannot be trusted with this project or anything resembling it, nor should it be.
To limit the damage these cosseted and venal people continue to inflict on our country and the world, it seems time to give isolationism serious reconsideration.
The Return of the Taliban 20 Years Later
On August 15, the Taliban arrived in Kabul. The Taliban’s leadership entered the presidential palace, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had vacated when he fled into exile abroad hours before. The country’s borders shut down and Kabul’s main international airport lay silent, except for the cries of those Afghans who had worked for the U.S. and NATO; they knew that their lives would now be at serious risk. The Taliban’s leadership, meanwhile, tried to reassure the public of a “peaceful transition” by saying in several statements that they would not seek retribution, but would go after corruption and lawlessness.
The Taliban’s Entry in Kabul Is a Defeat for the United States
In recent years, the United States has failed to accomplish any of the objectives of its wars. The U.S. entered Afghanistan with horrendous bombing and a lawless campaign of extraordinary rendition in October 2001 with the objective of ejecting the Taliban from the country; now, 20 years later, the Taliban is back. In 2003, two years after the U.S. unleashed a war in Afghanistan, it opened an illegal war against Iraq, which ultimately resulted in an unconditional withdrawal of the United States in 2011 after the refusal by the Iraqi parliament to allow U.S. troops extralegal protections. As the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, it opened a terrible war against Libya in 2011, which resulted in the creation of chaos in the region.
Not one of these wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—resulted in the creation of a pro-U.S. government. Each of these wars created needless suffering for the civilian populations. Millions of people had their lives disrupted, while hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in these senseless wars. What faith in humanity can now be expected from a young person in Jalalabad or in Sirte? Will they now turn inward, fearing that any possibility of change has been seized from them by the barbaric wars inflicted upon them and other residents of their countries?
There is no question that the United States continues to have the world’s largest military and that by using its base structure and its aerial and naval power, the U.S. can strike any country at any time. But what is the point of bombing a country if that violence attains no political ends? The U.S. used its advanced drones to assassinate the Taliban leaders, but for each leader that it killed, another half a dozen have emerged. Besides, the men in charge of the Taliban now—including the co-founder of the Taliban and head of its political commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar—were there from the start; it would never have been possible to decapitate the entire Taliban leadership. More than $2 trillion has been spent by the United States on a war that it knew could not be won.
Corruption Was the Trojan Horse
In early statements, Mullah Baradar said that his government will focus its attention on the endemic corruption in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, stories spread across Kabul about ministers of Ashraf Ghani’s government attempting to leave the country in cars filled with dollar bills, which was supposed to be the money that was provided by the U.S. to Afghanistan for aid and infrastructure. The drain of wealth from the aid given to the country has been significant. In a 2016 report by the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) relating to the “Lessons Learned from the U.S. Experience with Corruption in Afghanistan,” the investigators write, “Corruption significantly undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by damaging the legitimacy of the Afghan government, strengthening popular support for the insurgency, and channeling material resources to insurgent groups.” SIGAR created a “gallery of greed,” which listed U.S. contractors who siphoned aid money and pocketed it through fraud. More than $2 trillion has been spent on the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, but it went neither to provide relief nor to build the country’s infrastructure. The money fattened the rich in the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Corruption at the very top of the government depleted morale below. The U.S. pinned its hopes on the training of 300,000 soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA), spending $88 billion on this pursuit. In 2019, a purge of “ghost soldiers” in the rolls—soldiers who did not exist—led to the loss of 42,000 troops; it is likely that the number might have been higher. Morale in the ANA has plunged over the past few years, with defections from the army to other forces escalating. Defense of the provincial capitals was also weak, with Kabul falling to the Taliban almost without a fight.
To this end, the recently appointed defense minister to the Ghani government, General Bismillah Mohammadi, commented on Twitter about the governments that have been in power in Afghanistan since late 2001, “They tied our hands behind our backs and sold the homeland. Damn the rich man [Ghani] and his people.” This captures the popular mood in Afghanistan right now.
Afghanistan and Its Neighbors
Hours after taking power, a spokesperson for the Taliban’s political office, Dr. M. Naeem, said that all embassies will be protected, while another spokesperson for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that all former government officials did not need to fear for their lives. These are reassuring messages for now.
It has also been reassuring that the Taliban has said that it is not averse to a government of national unity, although there should be no doubt that such a government would be a rubber stamp for the Taliban’s own political agenda. So far, the Taliban has not articulated a plan for Afghanistan, which is something that the country has needed for at least a generation.
On July 28, Taliban leader Mullah Baradar met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China. The outlines of the discussion have not been fully revealed, but what is known is that the Chinese extracted a promise from the Taliban not to allow attacks on China from Afghanistan and not to allow attacks on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure in Central Asia. In return, China would continue its BRI investments in the region, including in Pakistan, which is a key Taliban supporter.
Whether or not the Taliban will be able to control extremist groups is not clear, but what is abundantly clear—in the absence of any credible Afghan opposition to the Taliban—is that the regional powers will have to exert their influence on Kabul to ameliorate the harsh program of the Taliban and its history of support for extremist groups. For instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (set up in 2001) revived in 2017 its Afghanistan Contact Group, which held a meeting in Dushanbe in July 2021, and called for a national unity government.
At that meeting, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar laid out a three-point plan, which achieved near consensus among the fractious neighbors:
“1. An independent, neutral, unified, peaceful, democratic and prosperous nation.
“2. Ceasing violence and terrorist attacks against civilians and state representatives, settle conflict through political dialogue, and respect interests of all ethnic groups, and
“3. Ensure that neighbors are not threatened by terrorism, separatism and extremism.”
That’s the most that can be expected at this moment. The plan promises peace, which is a great advance from what the people of Afghanistan have experienced over the past decades. But what kind of peace? This “peace” does not include the rights of women and children to a world of possibilities. During 20 years of the U.S. occupation, that “peace” was not in evidence either. This peace has no real political power behind it, but there are social movements beneath the surface that might emerge to put such a definition of “peace” on the table. Hope lies there.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.
A Day in the Death of British Justice
I sat in Court 4 in the Royal Courts of Justice in London on August 11 with Stella Moris, Julian Assange’s partner. I have known Stella for as long as I have known Julian. She, too, is a voice of freedom, coming from a family that fought the fascism of Apartheid. On August 12, her name was uttered in court by a barrister and a judge, forgettable people were it not for the power of their endowed privilege.
The barrister, Clair Dobbin, is in the pay of the regime in Washington, first Trump’s then Biden’s. She is America’s hired gun, or “silk,” as she would prefer. Her target is Julian Assange, who has committed no crime and has performed an historic public service by exposing the criminal actions and secrets on which governments, especially those claiming to be democracies, base their authority.
For those who may have forgotten, WikiLeaks, of which Assange is founder and publisher, exposed the secrets and lies that led to the invasion of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the murderous role of the Pentagon in dozens of countries, the blueprint for the 20-year catastrophe in Afghanistan, the attempts by Washington to overthrow elected governments, such as Venezuela’s, the collusion between nominal political opponents (Bush and Obama) to stifle a torture investigation and the CIA’s Vault 7 campaign that turned your mobile phone, even your TV set, into a spy in your midst.
WikiLeaks released almost a million documents from Russia which allowed Russian citizens to stand up for their rights. It revealed the Australian government had colluded with the U.S. against its own citizen, Assange. It named those Australian politicians who have “informed” for the U.S. It made the connection between the Clinton Foundation and the rise of jihadism in American-armed states in the Gulf.
There is more: WikiLeaks disclosed the U.S. campaign to suppress wages in sweatshop countries like Haiti, India’s campaign of torture in Kashmir, the British government’s secret agreement to shield “U.S. interests” in its official Iraq inquiry and the British Foreign Office’s plan to create a fake “marine protection zone” in the Indian Ocean to cheat the Chagos islanders out of their right of return.
In other words, WikiLeaks has given us real news about those who govern us and take us to war, not the preordained, repetitive spin that fills newspapers and television screens. This is real journalism; and for the crime of real journalism, Assange has spent most of the past decade in one form of incarceration or another, including Belmarsh prison, a horrific place.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, he is a gentle, intellectual visionary driven by his belief that a democracy is not a democracy unless it is transparent, and accountable.
On August 11, the United States sought the approval of Britain’s High Court to extend the terms of its appeal against a decision by a district judge, Vanessa Baraitser, in January to bar Assange’s extradition. Baraitser accepted the deeply disturbing evidence of a number of experts that Assange would be at great risk if he were incarcerated in the U.S.’s infamous prison system.
Professor Michael Kopelman, a world authority on neuropsychiatry, had said Assange would find a way to take his own life—the direct result of what Professor Nils Melzer, the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, described as the craven “mobbing” of Assange by governments—and their media echoes.
Those of us who were in the Old Bailey last September to hear Kopelman’s evidence were shocked and moved. I sat with Julian’s father, John Shipton, whose head was in his hands. The court was also told about the discovery of a razor blade in Julian’s Belmarsh cell and that he had made desperate calls to the Samaritans and written notes and much else that filled us with more than sadness.
Watching the lead barrister acting for Washington, James Lewis—a man from a military background who deploys a cringingly theatrical “aha!” formula with defense witnesses—reduce these facts to “malingering” and smearing witnesses, especially Kopelman, we were heartened by Kopelman’s revealing response that Lewis’s abuse was “a bit rich” as Lewis himself had sought to hire Kopelman’s expertise in another case.
Lewis’s sidekick is Clair Dobbin, and August 11 was her day. Completing the smearing of Professor Kopelman was down to her. An American with some authority sat behind her in court.
Dobbin said Kopelman had “misled” Judge Baraitser in September because he had not disclosed that Julian Assange and Stella Moris were partners, and their two young children, Gabriel and Max, were conceived during the period Assange had taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
The implication was that this somehow lessened Kopelman’s medical diagnosis: that Julian, locked up in solitary in Belmarsh prison and facing extradition to the U.S. on bogus “espionage” charges, had suffered severe psychotic depression and had planned, if he had not already attempted, to take his own life.
For her part, Judge Baraitser saw no contradiction. The full nature of the relationship between Stella and Julian had been explained to her in March 2020, and Professor Kopelman had made full reference to it in his report in August 2020. So the judge and the court knew all about it before the main extradition hearing last September. In her judgment in January, Baraitser said this:
“[Professor Kopelman] assessed Mr. Assange during the period May to December 2019 and was best placed to consider at first-hand his symptoms. He has taken great care to provide an informed account of Mr. Assange’s background and psychiatric history. He has given close attention to the prison medical notes and provided a detailed summary annexed to his December report. He is an experienced clinician and he was well aware of the possibility of exaggeration and malingering. I had no reason to doubt his clinical opinion.”
She added that she had “not been misled” by the exclusion in Kopelman’s first report of the Stella-Julian relationship and that she understood that Kopelman was protecting the privacy of Stella and her two young children.
In fact, as I know well, the family’s safety was under constant threat to the point when an embassy security guard confessed he had been told to steal one of the baby’s nappies so that a CIA-contracted company could analyze its DNA. There has been a stream of unpublicized threats against Stella and her children.
For the U.S. and its legal hirelings in London, damaging the credibility of a renowned expert by suggesting he withheld this information was a way, they no doubt reckoned, to rescue their crumbling case against Assange. In June, the Icelandic newspaper Stundin reported that a key prosecution witness against Assange has admitted fabricating his evidence. The one “hacking” charge the Americans hoped to bring against Assange if they could get their hands on him depended on this source and witness, Sigurdur Thordarson, an FBI informant.
Thordarson had worked as a volunteer for WikiLeaks in Iceland between 2010 and 2011. In 2011, as several criminal charges were brought against him, he contacted the FBI and offered to become an informant in return for immunity from all prosecution. It emerged that he was a convicted fraudster who embezzled $55,000 from WikiLeaks, and served two years in prison. In 2015, he was sentenced to three years for sex offenses against teenage boys. The Washington Post described Thordarson’s credibility as the “core” of the case against Assange.
On August 11, Lord Chief Justice Holroyde made no mention of this witness. His concern was that it was “arguable” that Judge Baraitser had attached too much weight to the evidence of Professor Kopelman, a man revered in his field. He said it was “very unusual” for an appeal court to have to reconsider evidence from an expert accepted by a lower court, but he agreed with Ms. Dobbin it was “misleading” even though he accepted Kopelman’s “understandable human response” to protect the privacy of Stella and the children.
If you can unravel the arcane logic of this, you have a better grasp than I who have sat through this case from the beginning. It is clear Kopelman misled nobody. Judge Baraitser—whose hostility to Assange personally was a presence in her court—said that she was not misled; it was not an issue; it did not matter. So why had Lord Chief Justice Holroyde spun the language with its weasel legalese and sent Julian back to his cell and its nightmares? There, he now waits for the High Court’s final decision in October—for Julian Assange, a life or death decision.
And why did Holroyde send Stella from the court trembling with anguish? Why is this case “unusual”? Why did he throw the gang of prosecutor-thugs at the Department of Justice in Washington -—who got their big chance under Trump, having been rejected by Obama—a life raft as their rotting, corrupt case against a principled journalist sunk as surely as Titanic?
This does not necessarily mean that in October the full bench of the High Court will order Julian to be extradited. In the upper reaches of the masonry that is the British judiciary there are, I understand, still those who believe in real law and real justice from which the term “British justice” takes its sanctified reputation in the land of the Magna Carta. It now rests on their ermined shoulders whether that history lives on or dies.
I sat with Stella in the court’s colonnade while she drafted words to say to the crowd of media and well-wishers outside in the sunshine. Clip-clopping along came Clair Dobbin, spruced, ponytail swinging, bearing her carton of files: a figure of certainty: she who said Julian Assange was “not so ill” that he would consider suicide. How does she know?
Has Ms. Dobbin worked her way through the medieval maze at Belmarsh to sit with Julian in his yellow arm band, as Professors Koppelman and Melzer have done, and Stella has done, and I have done? Never mind. The Americans have now “promised” not to put him in a hellhole, just as they “promised” not to torture Chelsea Manning, just as they promised. …
And has she read the WikiLeaks’ leak of a Pentagon document dated March 15, 2009? This foretold the current war on journalism. U.S. intelligence, it said, intended to destroy WikiLeaks’ and Julian Assange’s “center of gravity” with threats and “criminal prosecution.” Read all 32 pages and you are left in no doubt that silencing and criminalizing independent journalism was the aim, smear the method.
I tried to catch Ms. Dobbin’s gaze, but she was on her way: job done.
Outside, Stella struggled to contain her emotion. This is one brave woman, as indeed her man is an exemplar of courage. “What has not been discussed today,” said Stella, “is why I feared for my safety and the safety of our children and for Julian’s life. The constant threats and intimidation we endured for years, which has been terrorizing us and has been terrorizing Julian for 10 years. We have a right to live, we have a right to exist and we have a right for this nightmare to come to an end once and for all.”
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