Sunday, June 28, 2020
Symptomless transmission makes the coronavirus far harder to fight. But health officials dismissed the risk for months, pushing misleading and contradictory claims in the face of mounting evidence.
By Matt Apuzzo, Selam Gebrekidan and David D. Kirkpatrick
June 27, 2020
MUNICH — Dr. Camilla Rothe was about to leave for dinner when the government laboratory called with the surprising test result. Positive. It was Jan. 27. She had just discovered Germany’s first case of the new coronavirus.
But the diagnosis made no sense. Her patient, a businessman from a nearby auto parts company, could have been infected by only one person: a colleague visiting from China. And that colleague should not have been contagious.
The visitor had seemed perfectly healthy during her stay in Germany. No coughing or sneezing, no signs of fatigue or fever during two days of long meetings. She told colleagues that she had started feeling ill after the flight back to China. Days later, she tested positive for the coronavirus.
Scientists at the time believed that only people with symptoms could spread the coronavirus. They assumed it acted like its genetic cousin, SARS.
“People who know much more about coronaviruses than I do were absolutely sure,” recalled Dr. Rothe, an infectious disease specialist at Munich University Hospital.
But if the experts were wrong, if the virus could spread from seemingly healthy carriers or people who had not yet developed symptoms, the ramifications were potentially catastrophic. Public-awareness campaigns, airport screening and stay-home-if-you’re sick policies might not stop it. More aggressive measures might be required — ordering healthy people to wear masks, for instance, or restricting international travel.
Dr. Rothe and her colleagues were among the first to warn the world. But even as evidence accumulated from other scientists, leading health officials expressed unwavering confidence that symptomless spreading was not important.
In the days and weeks to come, politicians, public health officials and rival academics disparaged or ignored the Munich team. Some actively worked to undermine the warnings at a crucial moment, as the disease was spreading unnoticed in French churches, Italian soccer stadiums and Austrian ski bars. A cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, would become a deadly harbinger of symptomless spreading.
Interviews with doctors and public health officials in more than a dozen countries show that for two crucial months — and in the face of mounting genetic evidence — Western health officials and political leaders played down or denied the risk of symptomless spreading. Leading health agencies including the World Health Organization and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control provided contradictory and sometimes misleading advice. A crucial public health discussion devolved into a semantic debate over what to call infected people without clear symptoms.
The two-month delay was a product of faulty scientific assumptions, academic rivalries and, perhaps most important, a reluctance to accept that containing the virus would take drastic measures. The resistance to emerging evidence was one part of the world’s sluggish response to the virus.
It is impossible to calculate the human toll of that delay, but models suggest that earlier, aggressive action might have saved tens of thousands of lives. Countries like Singapore and Australia, which used testing and contact-tracing and moved swiftly to quarantine seemingly healthy travelers, fared far better than those that did not.
It is now widely accepted that seemingly healthy people can spread the virus, though uncertainty remains over how much they have contributed to the pandemic. Though estimates vary, models using data from Hong Kong, Singapore and China suggest that 30 to 60 percent of spreading occurs when people have no symptoms.
“This was, I think, a very simple truth,” Dr. Rothe said. “I was surprised that it would cause such a storm. I can’t explain it.”
Even now, with more than 9 million cases around the world, and a death toll approaching 500,000, Covid-19 remains an unsolved riddle. It is too soon to know whether the worst has passed, or if a second global wave of infections is about to crash down. But it is clear that an array of countries, from secretive regimes to overconfident democracies, have fumbled their response, misjudged the virus and ignored their own emergency plans.
It is also painfully clear that time was a critical commodity in curbing the virus — and that too much of it was wasted.
‘She Was Not Ill’
On the night of Germany’s first positive test, the virus had seemed far away. Fewer than 100 fatalities had been reported worldwide. Italy, which would become Europe’s ground zero, would not record its first cases for another three days.
A few reports out of China had already suggested the possibility of symptomless spreading. But nobody had proved it could happen.
That night, Dr. Rothe tapped out an email to a few dozen doctors and public health officials.
“Infections can actually be transmitted during the incubation period,” she wrote.
Three more employees from the auto parts company, Webasto, tested positive the following day. Their symptoms were so mild that, normally, it’s likely that none would have been flagged for testing, or have thought to stay at home.
Dr. Rothe decided she had to sound the alarm. Her boss, Dr. Michael Hoelscher, dashed off an email to The New England Journal of Medicine. “We believe that this observation is of utmost importance,” he wrote.
Editors responded immediately. How soon could they see the paper?
The next morning, Jan. 30, public health officials interviewed the Chinese businesswoman by phone. Hospitalized in Shanghai, she explained that she’d started feeling sick on the flight home. Looking back, maybe she’d had some mild aches or fatigue, but she had chalked them up to a long day of travel.
“From her perspective, she was not ill,” said Nadine Schian, a Webasto spokeswoman who was on the call. “She said, ‘OK, I felt tired. But I’ve been in Germany a lot of times before and I always have jet lag.’”
When the health officials described the call, Dr. Rothe and Dr. Hoelscher quickly finished and submitted their article. Dr. Rothe did not talk to the patient herself but said she relied on the health authority summary.
Within hours, it was online. It was a modest clinical observation at a key time. Just days earlier, the World Health Organization had said it needed more information about this very topic.
What the authors did not know, however, was that in a suburb 20 minutes away, another group of doctors had also been rushing to publish a report. Neither knew what the other was working on, a seemingly small academic rift that would have global implications.
The second group was made up of officials with the Bavarian health authority and Germany’s national health agency, known as the Robert Koch Institute. Inside a suburban office, doctors unfurled mural paper and traced infection routes using colored pens.
Their team, led by the Bavarian epidemiologist Dr. Merle Böhmer, submitted an article to The Lancet, another premier medical journal. But the Munich hospital group had scooped them by three hours. Dr. Böhmer said her team’s article, which went unpublished as a result, had reached similar conclusions but worded them slightly differently.
Dr. Rothe had written that patients appeared to be contagious before the onset of any symptoms. The government team had written that patients appeared to be contagious before the onset of full symptoms — at a time when symptoms were so mild that people might not even recognize them.
The Chinese woman, for example, had woken up in the middle of the night feeling jet-lagged. Wanting to be sharp for her meetings, she took a Chinese medicine called 999 — containing the equivalent of a Tylenol tablet — and went back to bed.
Perhaps that had masked a mild fever? Perhaps her jet lag was actually fatigue? She had reached for a shawl during a meeting. Maybe that was a sign of chills?
After two lengthy phone calls with the woman, doctors at the Robert Koch Institute were convinced that she had simply failed to recognize her symptoms. They wrote to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, casting doubt on Dr. Rothe’s findings.
Editors there decided that the dispute amounted to hairsplitting. If it took a lengthy interview to identify symptoms, how could anyone be expected to do it in the real world?
“The question was whether she had something consistent with Covid-19 or that anyone would have recognized at the time was Covid-19,” said Dr. Eric Rubin, the journal’s editor.
“The answer seemed to be no.”
The journal did not publish the letter. But that would not be the end of it.
That weekend, Andreas Zapf, the head of the Bavarian health authority, called Dr. Hoelscher of the Munich clinic. “Look, the people in Berlin are very angry about your publication,” Dr. Zapf said, according to Dr. Hoelscher.
He suggested changing the wording of Dr. Rothe’s report and replacing her name with those of members of the government task force, Dr. Hoelscher said. He refused.
The health agency would not discuss the phone call.
Until then, Dr. Hoelscher said, their report had seemed straightforward. Now it was clear: “Politically, this was a major, major issue.”
‘A Complete Tsunami’
On Monday, Feb. 3, the journal Science published an article calling Dr. Rothe’s report “flawed.” Science reported that the Robert Koch Institute had written to the New England Journal to dispute her findings and correct an error.
The Robert Koch Institute declined repeated interview requests over several weeks and did not answer written questions.
Dr. Rothe’s report quickly became a symbol of rushed research. Scientists said she should have talked to the Chinese patient herself before publishing, and that the omission had undermined her team’s work. On Twitter, she and her colleagues were disparaged by scientists and armchair experts alike.
“It broke over us like a complete tsunami,” Dr. Hoelscher said.
The controversy also overshadowed another crucial development out of Munich.
The next morning, Dr. Clemens-Martin Wendtner made a startling announcement. Dr. Wendtner was overseeing treatment of Munich’s Covid-19 patients — there were eight now — and had taken swabs from each.
He discovered the virus in the nose and throat at much higher levels, and far earlier, than had been observed in SARS patients. That meant it probably could spread before people knew they were sick.
But the Science story drowned that news out. If Dr. Rothe’s paper had implied that governments might need to do more against Covid-19, the pushback from the Robert Koch Institute was an implicit defense of the conventional thinking.
Sweden’s public health agency declared that Dr. Rothe’s report had contained major errors. The agency’s website said, unequivocally, that “there is no evidence that people are infectious during the incubation period” — an assertion that would remain online in some form for months.
French health officials, too, left no room for debate: “A person is contagious only when symptoms appear,” a government flyer read. “No symptoms = no risk of being contagious.”
As Dr. Rothe and Dr. Hoelscher reeled from the criticism, Japanese doctors were preparing to board the Diamond Princess cruise ship. A former passenger had tested positive for coronavirus.
Yet on the ship, parties continued. The infected passenger had been off the ship for days, after all. And he hadn’t reported symptoms while onboard.
A Semantic Debate
Immediately after Dr. Rothe’s report, the World Health Organization had noted that patients might transmit the virus before showing symptoms. But the organization also underscored a point that it continues to make: Patients with symptoms are the main drivers of the epidemic.
Once the Science article was published, however, the organization waded directly into the debate on Dr. Rothe’s work. On Tuesday, Feb. 4, Dr. Sylvie Briand, the agency’s chief of infectious disease preparedness, tweeted a link to the Science article, calling Dr. Rothe’s report flawed.
With that tweet, the W.H.O. focused on a semantic distinction that would cloud discussion for months: Was the patient asymptomatic, meaning she would never show symptoms? Or pre-symptomatic, meaning she became sick later? Or, even more confusing, oligo-symptomatic, meaning that she had symptoms so mild that she didn’t recognize them?
To some doctors, the focus on these arcane distinctions felt like whistling in the graveyard. A person who feels healthy has no way to know that she is carrying a virus or is about to become sick. Airport temperature checks will not catch these people. Neither will asking them about their symptoms or telling them to stay home when they feel ill.
The W.H.O. later said that the tweet had not been intended as a criticism.
One group paid little attention to this brewing debate: the Munich-area doctors working to contain the cluster at the auto parts company. They spoke daily with potentially sick people, monitoring their symptoms and tracking their contacts.
“For us, it was pretty soon clear that this disease can be transmitted before symptoms,” said Dr. Monika Wirth, who tracked contacts in the nearby county of Fürstenfeldbruck.
Dr. Rothe, though, was shaken. She could not understand why much of the scientific establishment seemed eager to play down the risk.
“All you need is a pair of eyes,” she said. “You don’t need rocket-science virology.”
But she remained confident.
“We will be proven right,” she told Dr. Hoelscher.
That night, Dr. Rothe received an email from Dr. Michael Libman, an infectious-disease specialist in Montreal. He thought that criticism of the paper amounted to semantics. Her paper had convinced him of something: “The disease will most likely eventually spread around the world.”
On Feb. 4, Britain’s emergency scientific committee met and, while its experts did not rule out the possibility of symptomless transmission, nobody put much stock in Dr. Rothe’s paper.
“It was very much a hearsay study,” said Wendy Barclay, a virologist and member of the committee, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. “In the absence of real robust epidemiology and tracing, it isn’t obvious until you see the data.”
The data would soon arrive, and from an unexpected source. Dr. Böhmer, from the Bavarian health team, received a startling phone call in the second week of February.
Virologists had discovered a subtle genetic mutation in the infections of two patients from the Munich cluster. They had crossed paths for the briefest of moments, one passing a saltshaker to the other in the company cafeteria, when neither had symptoms. Their shared mutation made it clear that one had infected the other.
Dr. Böhmer had been skeptical of symptomless spreading. But now, there was no doubt: “It can only be explained with pre-symptomatic transmission,” Dr. Böhmer said.
Now it was Dr. Böhmer who sounded the alarm. She said she promptly shared the finding, and its significance, with the W.H.O. and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Neither organization included the discovery in its regular reports.
A week after receiving Dr. Böhmer’s information, European health officials were still declaring: “We are still unsure whether mild or asymptomatic cases can transmit the virus.” There was no mention of the genetic evidence.
W.H.O. officials say the genetic discovery informed their thinking, but they made no announcement of it. European health officials say the German information was one early piece of an emerging picture that they were still piecing together.
The doctors in Munich were increasingly frustrated and confused by the World Health Organization. First, the group wrongly credited the Chinese government with alerting the German authorities to the first infection. Government officials and doctors say the auto parts company itself sounded the alarm.
Then, the World Health Organization’s emergency director, Dr. Michael Ryan, said on Feb. 27 that the significance of symptomless spreading was becoming a myth. And Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the organization’s technical lead on coronavirus response, suggested it was nothing to worry about.
“It’s rare but possible,” she said. “It’s very rare.”
The agency still maintains that people who cough or sneeze are more contagious than people who don’t. But there is no scientific consensus on how significant this difference is or how it affects the spread of virus.
And so, with evidence mounting, the Munich team could not understand how the W.H.O. could be so sure that symptomless spreading was insignificant.
“At this point, for us it was clear,” said Dr. Wendtner, the senior doctor overseeing treatment of the Covid-19 patients. “This was a misleading statement by the W.HO.”
‘If This Is True, We’re in Trouble’
The Munich cluster was not the only warning.
The Chinese health authorities had explicitly cautioned that patients were contagious before showing symptoms. A Japanese bus driver was infected while transporting seemingly healthy tourists from Wuhan.
And by the middle of February, 355 people aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship had tested positive. About a third of the infected passengers and staff had no symptoms.
But public health officials saw danger in promoting the risk of silent spreaders. If quarantining sick people and tracing their contacts could not reliably contain the disease, governments might abandon those efforts altogether.
In Sweden and Britain, for example, discussion swirled about enduring the epidemic until the population obtained “herd immunity.” Public health officials worried that might lead to overwhelmed hospitals and needless deaths.
Plus, preventing silent spreading required aggressive, widespread testing that was then impossible for most countries.
“It’s not like we had some easy alternative,” said Dr. Libman, the Canadian doctor. “The message was basically: ‘If this is true, we’re in trouble.’”
European health officials say they were reluctant to acknowledge silent spreading because the evidence was trickling in and the consequences of a false alarm would have been severe. “These reports are seen everywhere, all over the world,” said Dr. Josep Jansa, a senior European Union health official. “Whatever we put out, there’s no way back.”
Looking back, health officials should have said that, yes, symptomless spreading was happening and they did not understand how prevalent it was, said Dr. Agoritsa Baka, a senior European Union doctor.
But doing that, she said, would have amounted to an implicit warning to countries: What you’re doing might not be enough.
‘Stop Buying Masks!’
While public health officials hesitated, some doctors acted. At a conference in Seattle in mid-February, Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University professor, said his research suggested that Covid-19’s rapid spread could only be explained if there were infectious patients with unremarkable symptoms or no symptoms at all.
In the audience that day was Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist and former U.S. energy secretary. “If left to its own devices, this disease will spread through the whole population,” he remembers Professor Shaman warning.
Afterward, Dr. Chu began insisting that healthy colleagues at his Stanford University laboratory wear masks. Doctors in Cambridge, England, concluded that asymptomatic transmission was a big source of infection and advised local health workers and patients to wear masks, well before the British government acknowledged the risk of silent spreaders.
The American authorities, faced with a shortage, actively discouraged the public from buying masks. “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted on Feb. 29.
By early March, while the World Health Organization continued pressing the case that symptom-free transmission was rare, science was breaking in the other direction.
Researchers in Hong Kong estimated that 44 percent of Covid-19 transmission occurred before symptoms began, an estimate that was in line with a British study that put that number as high as 50 percent.
The Hong Kong study concluded that people became infectious about two days before their illness emerged, with a peak on their first day of symptoms. By the time patients felt the first headache or scratch in the throat, they might have been spreading the disease for days.
In Belgium, doctors saw that math in action, as Covid-19 tore through nursing homes, killing nearly 5,000 people.
“We thought that by monitoring symptoms and asking sick people to stay at home, we would be able to manage the spread,” said Steven Van Gucht, the head of Belgium’s Covid-19 scientific committee. “It came in through people with hardly any symptoms.”
More than 700 people aboard the Diamond Princess were sickened. Fourteen died. Researchers estimate that most of the infection occurred early on, while seemingly healthy passengers socialized and partied.
Government scientists in Britain concluded in late April that 5 to 6 percent of symptomless health care workers were infected and might have been be spreading the virus.
In Munich, Dr. Hoelscher has asked himself many times whether things would have been different if world leaders had taken the issue seriously earlier. He compared their response to a rabbit stumbling upon a poisonous snake.
“We were watching that snake and were somehow paralyzed,” he said.
Acceptance. Or Not.
As the research coalesced in March, European health officials were convinced.
“OK, this is really a big issue,” Dr. Baka recalled thinking. “It plays a big role in the transmission.”
By the end of the month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced it was rethinking its policy on masks. It concluded that up to 25 percent of patients might have no symptoms.
Since then, the C.D.C., governments around the world and, finally, the World Health Organization have recommended that people wear masks in public.
Still, the W.H.O. is sending confusing signals. Earlier this month, Dr. Van Kerkhove, the technical lead, repeated that transmission from asymptomatic patients was “very rare.” After an outcry from doctors, the agency said there had been a misunderstanding.
“In all honesty, we don’t have a clear picture on this yet,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said. She said she had been referring to a few studies showing limited transmission from asymptomatic patients.
Recent internet ads confused the matter even more. A Google search in mid-June for studies on asymptomatic transmission returned a W.H.O. advertisement titled: “People With No Symptoms — Rarely Spread Coronavirus.”
Clicking on the link, however, offered a much more nuanced picture: “Some reports have indicated that people with no symptoms can transmit the virus. It is not yet known how often it happens.”
After The Times asked about those discrepancies, the organization removed the advertisements.
Back in Munich, there is little doubt left. Dr. Böhmer, the Bavarian government doctor, published a study in The Lancet last month that relied on extensive interviews and genetic information to methodically track every case in the cluster.
In the months after Dr. Rothe swabbed her first patient, 16 infected people were identified and caught early. All survived. Aggressive testing and flawless contact-tracing contained the spread.
Dr. Böhmer’s study found “substantial” transmission from people with no symptoms or exceptionally mild, nonspecific symptoms.
Dr. Rothe and her colleagues got a footnote.
Posted by Mladen Andrijasevic at 4:13 AM
Friday, June 26, 2020
June 26, 2020 4:04 pm ET
Outrage is the natural response to the brutal killing of George Floyd. Yet outrage and clear, critical thinking seldom go hand in hand. An act of police brutality became the catalyst for a revolutionary mood. Protests spilled over into violence and looting. Stores were destroyed; policemen and civilians injured and killed. The truism “black lives matter” was joined by a senseless slogan: “Defund the police.”
Democratic politicians—and some Republicans—hastened to appease the protesters. The mayors of Los Angeles and New York pledged to cut their cities’ police budgets. The Minneapolis City Council said it intended to disband the police department. The speaker of the House and other congressional Democrats donned scarves made of Ghanaian Kente cloth and kneeled in the Capitol. Sen. Mitt Romney joined a march.
Corporate executives scrambled to identify their brands with the protests. By the middle of June, according to polls, American public opinion had been transformed from skepticism about the Black Lives Matter movement to widespread support. Politicians, journalists and other public figures who had denounced protests against the pandemic lockdown suddenly lost their concern about infection. One Johns Hopkins epidemiologist tweeted on June 2: “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.”
Although I am a black African—an immigrant who came to the U.S. freely—I am keenly aware of the hardships and miseries African-Americans have endured for centuries. Slavery, Reconstruction, segregation: I know the history. I know that there is still racial prejudice in America, and that it manifests itself in the aggressive way some police officers handle African-Americans. I know that by measures of wealth, health and education, African-Americans remain on average closer to the bottom of society than to the top. I know, too, that African-American communities have been disproportionately hurt by both Covid-19 and the economic disruption of lockdowns.
Yet when I hear it said that the U.S. is defined above all by racism, when I see books such as Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” top the bestseller list, when I read of educators and journalists being fired for daring to question the orthodoxies of Black Lives Matter—then I feel obliged to speak up.
“What the media also do not tell you,” I tweeted on June 9, “is that America is the best place on the planet to be black, female, gay, trans or what have you. We have our problems and we need to address those. But our society and our systems are far from racist.”
America looks different if you grew up, as I did, in Africa and the Middle East. There I had firsthand experience of three things. First, bloody internecine wars between Africans—with all the combatants dark-skinned, and no white people present. Second, the anarchy that comes when there is no police, no law and order. Third, the severe racism (as well as sexism) of a society such as Saudi Arabia, where de facto slavery still exists.
I came to the U.S. in 2006, having lived in the Netherlands since 1992. Like most immigrants, I came with a confidence that in America I would be judged on my merits rather than on the basis of racial or sexual prejudice.
There’s a reason the U.S. remains, as it has long been, the destination of choice for would-be migrants. We know that there is almost no difference in the unemployment rate for foreign-born and native-born workers—unlike in the European Union.
We immigrants see the downsides of American society: the expensive yet inefficient health-care system, the shambolic public schools in poor communities, the poverty that no welfare program can alleviate. But we also see, as Charles Murray and J.D. Vance have shown, that these problems aren’t unique to black America. White America is also, in Mr. Murray’s phrase, “coming apart” socially. Broken marriages and alienated young men are problems in Appalachia as much as in the inner cities.
If America is a chronically racist society, then why are the “deaths of despair” studied by Anne Case and Angus Deaton so heavily concentrated among middle-aged white Americans? Did the Covid-19 pandemic make us forget the opioid epidemic, which has disproportionately afflicted the white population?
This country is only 244 years old, but it may be showing signs of age. Time was, Americans were renowned for their can-do, problem-solving attitude. Europeans, as Alexis de Tocqueville complained, were inclined to leave problems to central authorities in Paris or Berlin. Americans traditionally solved problems locally, sitting together in town halls and voluntary associations. Some of that spirit still exists, even if we now have to meet on Zoom. But the old question—“How can we figure this out?”—is threatened with replacement by “Why can’t the government figure this out for us?”
The problem is that there are people among us who don’t want to figure it out and who have an interest in avoiding workable solutions. They have an obvious political incentive not to solve social problems, because social problems are the basis of their power. That is why, whenever a scholar like Roland Fryer brings new data to the table—showing it’s simply not true that the police disproportionately shoot black people dead—the response is not to read the paper but to try to discredit its author.
I have no objection to the statement “black lives matter.” But the movement that uses that name has a sinister hostility to serious, fact-driven discussion of the problem it purports to care about. Even more sinister is the haste with which academic, media and business leaders abase themselves before it. There will be no resolution of America’s many social problems if free thought and free speech are no longer upheld in our public sphere. Without them, honest deliberation, mutual learning and the American problem-solving ethic are dead.
America’s elites have blundered into this mess. There were eight years of hedonistic hubris under Bill Clinton. Then came 9/11 and for eight years the U.S. suffered nemesis in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the financial crash. After that we had eight years of a liberal president, and the hubris returned. Sanctimonious politics coincided with deeply unequal economics.
Through all this, many Americans felt completely left out—of the technology boom, of the enterprise of globalization. I never thought I would agree with Michael Moore. But at an October 2016 event, he predicted that Donald Trump would win: “Trump’s election is going to be the biggest [middle finger] ever recorded in human history.” I still think that analysis was right. Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of his eloquence. He was elected to convey that middle finger to those who had been smugly in charge for decades.
But you can’t give the middle finger to a pandemic, and 2020 has exposed the limitations of Mr. Trump as a president. Yet when you look at the alternative, you have to wonder where it would lead us. Back to the elite hubris of the 1990s and 2010s? I can’t help thinking that another shattering defeat might force sane center-left liberals into saying:They’ll be in the same position as the British Labour Party after four years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and two election defeats, when eventually the moderates had to throw the leftists out. One way or another, the Democratic Party has to find a way of throwing out the socialists who are destroying it.
The Republicans, too, have to change their ways. They have to reconnect with young people. They have to address the concerns of Hispanics. And they have to listen to African-Americans, who most certainly do not want to see the police in their neighborhoods replaced by woke community organizers.
We have barely four months to figure this out in the old American way. To figure out how to contain Covid-19, which we haven’t yet done, because—I dare to say it—old lives matter, too, and it is old people as well as minorities whom this disease disproportionately kills. To figure out how to reduce violence, because the police wouldn’t use guns so often if criminals didn’t carry them so often. Perhaps most pressing of all, to figure out how to hold an election in November that isn’t marred by procedural problems, allegations of abuse and postelection tumult.
Who knows? Maybe there’s even time for the candidates to debate the challenges we confront—not with outrage, but with the kind of critical thinking we Americans were once famous for, which takes self-criticism as the first step toward finding solutions.
Posted by Mladen Andrijasevic at 10:04 PM
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Pupils leave tributes for James Furlong, a teacher who died in the Reading attack
Imagine if on Saturday evening a white neo-Nazi had stabbed three men to death. Imagine, furthermore, if in the wake of the killings it had turned out that all three of the victims were gay. Or ‘members of the LGBT community’, to use the lexicon of the time. And then imagine if two days later nobody in the UK or anywhere else was very interested in any of this. So what if the victims were all gay? Why bother sifting around for motives. What are you trying to say? Bigot.
Well something that might well be analogous to that happened in Reading on Saturday evening and over the days since.
On Saturday evening, Khairi Saadallah went on a stabbing spree in Forbury Gardens, Reading. His victims were three gay men, James Furlong, David Wails and Joe Ritchie-Bennett. It has since emerged that the 25-year old suspect, who is now in police custody, came to the UK from Libya in 2012. He is reported to have come to the attention of MI5 last year as an individual who had the potential to travel overseas for terrorism purposes. The Security Service apparently decided that he was not an immediate risk.
The families of Furlong, Wails and Ritchie-Bennett might beg to differ on that last point. But who knows. So far there has been almost no interest expressed in the possible motives of the attacker. Quite possibly there is a mental health component. In which case I would expect that to be looked into. Quite possibly there will be some drugs-related component. In which case I would expect the usual voices to demand an investigation into that. But anything else to see here? Any other reason why a migrant from Libya who was given asylum in the UK might want to go around stabbing gay men? Well who would even ask such questions? What do you want to find? Bigot.
So far the most analysis there has been has been to inform us all of the wonderfulness of the victims. We can learn that the victims were not just ‘proud gay men’ who attended Reading Pride, but that at least one of them – Furlong – was also ‘a strong advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement.’ Perhaps Saadallah didn’t get that memo. Perhaps if he had known how involved in social activism his victims were then he would have left them alone and stabbed some people who never much bothered with such things, or kept themselves to themselves.
For the BBC – among most other major news outlets – every question that this case throws up remains stubbornly unaddressed and unaddressable. On Monday night’s News at Ten, the BBC managed to talk about the three Reading victims without once saying that the police think they might have been targeted because they were gay. All that there was that nodded to that possibility was a tribute from someone who said that the victims were part of the LBGT community.
Why leave nearly all the analysis out? Of course there were will be a trial, the due process of the law and so on. But if the attacker from Saturday night had been a white skinhead, or a neo-Nazi or had been wearing a big red MAGA hat I am fairly confident that the gay press and all of the mainstream media would be crawling over every angle of this story by now with an unparalleled fury, hurling allegations of ‘adjacency’ against all of their favourite enemies. As it is I am reminded of nothing so much as story after story over recent years. Stories like when Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida four years ago and gunned down 49 people.
People know after a story like this that it isn’t good. They know that there’s more to say and doubtless more to see here. But they have made a very basic calculation. The calculation is that dead gays aren’t good. But they aren’t as bad – indeed they are a price worth paying – compared to asking any of the questions that sane people would ask after an attack like this. Sure we have a societal piety that is opposed to homophobia. But the societal piety which says that we should not risk ‘othering’ Libyan asylum seekers is stronger. The fear will be that talking about Islamic homophobia as a potential motive in this case might increase prejudice of some other kind. It's a calculation of a very cynical and inept kind.
That is why the media is silent on this. It's why the gay press is so muted. They are willing to take this sort of thing, absorb it and just hope it doesn’t happen too often. It’s a matter of hierarchies. And the gays aren’t as high up this one as people like to think.
Posted by Mladen Andrijasevic at 10:31 PM
Monday, June 22, 2020
If former US national security adviser John Bolton’s book is accurate, three major long-debated points essential to Israel’s national security would be resolved.
The points are:
1) The US under President Donald Trump will not attack Iran’s nuclear weapons program preemptively;
2) Trump has green-lighted and would continue to green-light Israel to do so; and
3) none of Trump’s key advisers believe his “maximum pressure” policy will change Tehran’s behavior absent of a regime change (which only Bolton actively sought to do).
The truth is that a number of top US and Israeli security officials have been theorizing about these three points for some time.
But no one has ever reported what Trump’s mindset was on the issue behind closed doors, as Bolton has now done.
Bolton reports on a few key moments.
In a 2017 meeting in which he and Trump were discussing their critique of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Trump told him, “You tell Bibi [Netanyahu] that if he uses force, I will back him. I told him that, but you tell him again.”
The former national security adviser also recalls multiple instances where he was discussing the viability of America's deterrence of Iran with then-US military chief Joseph Dunford, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top Trump officials.
Finally, Bolton gives an extensive narrative of what is mostly viewed as Trump’s botched response (or non-response) to Iran’s shooting down of a RQ-4A Global Hawk drone in June 2019.
What is clear in all of these passages is that despite having confidence in public – away from the cameras – Bolton, Dunford and Pompeo do not believe Iran will change its behavior simply by virtue of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
Another point that is clear is that they believed, in those behind the scenes talks, that Trump’s actions sent a message to the Islamic Republic that he would not be willing to preemptively strike its nuclear program.
Further, there is also no question that one reading of the Dunford-Bolton and Pompeo-Bolton passages is that none of these top aides believed Trump was willing to preemptively strike Tehran’s nuclear program.
They are concerned that Iran knew this and wanted to fool Iran into thinking that the president still might strike so as to deter the ayatollahs from deciding to break out to a nuclear weapon.
Together with Trump’s comments to Bolton in the other passage about Israel striking first, this reading seems very likely to be the correct one.
AT NO POINT in Bolton’s book is there any real mention of Trump talking of the US preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear program. There is frequent discussion, however, about how to respond with much more limited strikes on Iranian assets after Tehran shot down the extremely expensive US drone or used its proxies to attack US assets or allies.
But Trump always views, in very narrow terms, the actual use of force – as opposed to tweeting about using force – and is extremely worried about not killing too many enemy soldiers, in order to avoid an escalation.
As Bolton describes it, Trump backed down from retaliating against three Iranian sites, following the Islamic Republic’s shooting down of the US drone, based on hearing unsubstantiated estimates of Iranian casualties which Bolton and Dunford said were gross overestimates.
Bolton’s message is that no matter how Trump sounds in public, behind the scenes he is looking for ways out of using force. Trump is nowhere near to having the stomach for preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear program. Bolton would have certainly supported such actions.
Some have argued that Trump’s daring order to kill Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force Chief Qasem Soleimani was a game changer that reset what the US president might be willing to do. After all, this was in January, a few months after Bolton had stepped down.
But Trump’s rush to declare an end to that January standoff with Iran; his decision not to retaliate after Tehran fired dozens of missiles at US bases in Iraq; and Bolton’s descriptions of his tenure say otherwise.
Rather, Bolton seems to make it clear that if Iran only quietly moves toward a nuclear bomb without killing any US soldiers and avoids publicly embarrassing Trump, he will not take action.
ALL OF THIS is mixed news for Israel.
Jerusalem is happy to have a green light from the US if there becomes a need for a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program. But it would have also liked US participation in the strike and may be discouraged by top US officials’ lack of belief in their own “maximum pressure” campaign.
Another key passage which sheds light on whether Israel could pull off such a strike on its own is Bolton’s recounting of a meeting he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Israel, he said, could not conduct military action against Iran alone because it didn’t have the resources or capabilities, especially if the Arabs united behind Iran, which was preposterous,” Bolton wrote.
Bolton’s confidence that Israel does in fact have the resources and capabilities for such a strike is significant as it has been an open question for the last decade.
In January, The Jerusalem Post broke new ground on the question, noting new capabilities Israel had developed in the last few years without even having special “bunker buster” bombs for striking Iran’s underground Fordow facility.
A scenario raised by the Post was whether: 1) a 5,000-pound or similar weapon by Lockheed Martin; 2) multiple coordinated uses of that bomb, or; 3) a rampage missile or spice bomb (bombs Israel has but which are smaller than the 21,000-30,000 pound US bombs), would be enough to destroy Fordow.
Another theoretical scenario would be if Israel has somehow customized a small number of aircraft to carry a small number of larger bombs that go beyond both the aircraft and the bombs’ standard capabilities.
Although top current and former officials that spoke to the Post on the issue mostly implied that Israel still does not possess the capability to strike Fordow on its own, some surprisingly said the opposite.
Bolton’s vote of confidence with the information he had in October 2018 suggests that Israel’s capabilities may be sufficient for a solo strike.
Posted by Mladen Andrijasevic at 11:39 PM
Don't we ever learn from history?
From The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.
The following rough approximation, based on unofficial estimates, gives some sense of the scale and gravity of these crimes:
U.S.S.R.: 20 million deaths
China: 65 million deaths
Vietnam: 1 million deaths
Cambodia: 2 million deaths
Eastern Europe: 1million deaths
Latin America: 150,000 deaths
Africa: 1.7million deaths
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths
The international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power: about 10,000 deaths
The total approaches 100 million people killed.
Posted by Mladen Andrijasevic at 1:18 PM
Saturday, June 20, 2020
Protesters tore down the statue of George Washington at the German American Society in Northeast Portland late Thursday night. (KATU)
PORTLAND, Ore. — A group of people late Thursday night tore down a statue of George Washington that stood on the lawn of the German American Society in Northeast Portland.
There were 30 to 40 people there at the time.
Meanwhile, protesters elsewhere took a break from their nightly marching, but they still gathered at Jefferson High School.
The group is organized by Rose City Justice, which usually meets at Revolution Hall and marches somewhere across the city.
But on Thursday night they stayed at Jefferson and heard from numerous speakers about the Black Lives Matter movement.
And as they have done almost every night for three weeks, another group of a few hundred protesters gathered at the Justice Center downtown, which has been the site of the most clashes between police and protesters.
If this does not sound the alarm bells that something is terribly wrong with these protests, what will? When they bring down the statues of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? Will Sally Hemings be the justification?
The whole situation reminds me of what Lenin said to Bertrand Russell in 1920: ‘Oh dear me no, we are not establishing peasant proprietorship, you see there are workers and some rich peasants and we stirred up the poor peasants against the rich peasants and these soon hanged them to the nearest tree . Ha, ha, ha, ha!’
Bertrand Russell: I did not much like that.
Posted by Mladen Andrijasevic at 3:25 AM
Friday, June 19, 2020
I have been following what John Bolton has been saying, especially on Iran, for the last 25 years, through the days he was President George W. Bush's Ambassador to the UN and President Trump's National Security Advisor. Bolton is sharp, superbly informed, was never inconsistent and has integrity. So I have no problem in deciding who is telling the truth.
Below is the list of articles from this blog on both Bolton and Trump:
Posts on John Bolton
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Monday, May 6, 2019
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Sunday, July 26, 2015
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Friday, September 28, 2012
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Posts on Donald Trump
Monday, February 3, 2020
Friday, January 31, 2020
Friday, August 23, 2019
Saturday, April 27, 2019
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Friday, October 13, 2017
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Monday, January 30, 2017
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Sunday, September 4, 2016
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Saturday, March 12, 2016
Sunday, March 6, 2016
Saturday, January 23, 2016
By John Bolton
June 17, 2020 2:46 pm ET
U.S. strategy toward the People’s Republic of China has rested for more than four decades on two basic propositions. The first is that the Chinese economy would be changed irreversibly by the rising prosperity caused by market-oriented policies, greater foreign investment, ever-deeper interconnections with global markets and broader acceptance of international economic norms. Bringing China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was the apotheosis of this assessment.
The second proposition is that, as China’s national wealth increased, so too, inevitably, would its political openness. As China became more democratic, it would avoid competition for regional or global hegemony, and the risk of international conflict—hot or cold—would recede.
Both propositions were fundamentally incorrect. After joining the WTO, China did exactly the opposite of what was predicted. China gamed the organization, pursuing a mercantilist policy in a supposedly free-trade body. China stole intellectual property, forced technology transfers from foreign businesses and continued managing its economy in authoritarian ways.
Politically, China moved away from democracy, not toward it. In Xi Jinping, China now has its most powerful leader and its most centralized government since Mao Zedong. Ethnic and religious persecution on a massive scale continues. Meanwhile, China has created a formidable offensive cyberwarfare program, built a blue-water navy for the first time in 500 years, increased its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and more.
I saw these developments as a threat to U.S. strategic interests and to our friends and allies. The Obama administration basically sat back and watched it happen.
President Donald Trump in some respects embodies the growing U.S. concern about China. He appreciates the key truth that politico-military power rests on a strong economy. Trump frequently says that stopping China’s unfair economic growth at America’s expense is the best way to defeat China militarily, which is fundamentally correct.
But the real question is what Trump does about China’s threat. His advisers are badly fractured intellectually. The administration has “panda huggers” like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; confirmed free-traders like National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow; and China hawks like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, lead trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.
After I became Trump’s national security adviser in April 2018, I had the most futile role of all: I wanted to fit China trade policy into a broader strategic framework. We had a good slogan, calling for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. But a bumper sticker is not a strategy, and we struggled to avoid being sucked into the black hole of U.S.-China trade issues.
Trade matters were handled from day one in a completely chaotic way. Trump’s favorite way to proceed was to get small armies of people together, either in the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, to argue out these complex, controversial issues. Over and over again, the same issues. Without resolution, or even worse, one outcome one day and a contrary outcome a few days later. The whole thing made my head hurt.
With the November 2018 midterm elections looming, there was little progress on the China trade front. Attention turned to the coming Buenos Aires G-20 summit the following month, when Xi and Trump could meet personally. Trump saw this as the meeting of his dreams, with the two big guys getting together, leaving the Europeans aside, cutting the big deal.
What could go wrong? Plenty, in Lighthizer’s view. He was very worried about how much Trump would give away once untethered.
In Buenos Aires on Dec. 1, at dinner, Xi began by telling Trump how wonderful he was, laying it on thick. Xi read steadily through note cards, doubtless all of it hashed out arduously in advance. Trump ad-libbed, with no one on the U.S. side knowing what he would say from one minute to the next.
One highlight came when Xi said he wanted to work with Trump for six more years, and Trump replied that people were saying that the two-term constitutional limit on presidents should be repealed for him. Xi said the U.S. had too many elections, because he didn’t want to switch away from Trump, who nodded approvingly.
Xi finally shifted to substance, describing China’s positions: The U.S. would roll back Trump’s existing tariffs, and both parties would refrain from competitive currency manipulation and agree not to engage in cyber thievery (how thoughtful). The U.S. should eliminate Trump’s tariffs, Xi said, or at least agree to forgo new ones. “People expect this,” said Xi, and I feared at that moment that Trump would simply say yes to everything Xi had laid out.
Trump came close, unilaterally offering that U.S. tariffs would remain at 10% rather than rise to 25%, as he had previously threatened. In exchange, Trump asked merely for some increases in Chinese farm-product purchases, to help with the crucial farm-state vote. If that could be agreed, all the U.S. tariffs would be reduced. It was breathtaking.
Trump asked Lighthizer if he had left anything out, and Lighthizer did what he could to get the conversation back onto the plane of reality, focusing on the structural issues and ripping apart the Chinese proposal. Trump closed by saying Lighthizer would be in charge of the deal-making, and Jared Kushner would also be involved, at which point all the Chinese perked up and smiled.
The decisive play came in May 2019, when the Chinese reneged on several key elements of the emerging agreement, including all the structural issues. For me, this was proof that China simply wasn’t serious.
Trump spoke with Xi by phone on June 18, just over a week ahead of the year’s G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, where they would next meet. Trump began by telling Xi he missed him and then said that the most popular thing he had ever been involved with was making a trade deal with China, which would be a big plus for him politically.
In their meeting in Osaka on June 29, Xi told Trump that the U.S.-China relationship was the most important in the world. He said that some (unnamed) American political figures were making erroneous judgments by calling for a new cold war with China.
Whether Xi meant to finger the Democrats or some of us sitting on the U.S. side of the table, I don’t know, but Trump immediately assumed that Xi meant the Democrats. Trump said approvingly that there was great hostility to China among the Democrats. Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.
Trump then raised the trade negotiations’ collapse the previous month, urging China to return to the positions it had retracted and conclude the most exciting, largest deal ever. He proposed that for the remaining $350 billion of trade imbalances (by Trump’s arithmetic), the U.S. would not impose tariffs, but he again returned to importuning Xi to buy as many American farm products as China could.
Xi agreed that we should restart the trade talks, welcoming Trump’s concession that there would be no new tariffs and agreeing that the two negotiating teams should resume discussions on farm products on a priority basis. “You’re the greatest Chinese leader in 300 years!” exulted Trump, amending that a few minutes later to “the greatest leader in Chinese history.”
Subsequent negotiations after I resigned did lead to an interim “deal” announced in December 2019, but there was less to it than met the eye.
Trump’s conversations with Xi reflected not only the incoherence in his trade policy but also the confluence in Trump’s mind of his own political interests and U.S. national interests. Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.
Take Trump’s handling of the threats posed by the Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE. Ross and others repeatedly pushed to strictly enforce U.S. regulations and criminal laws against fraudulent conduct, including both firms’ flouting of U.S. sanctions against Iran and other rogue states. The most important goal for Chinese “companies” like Huawei and ZTE is to infiltrate telecommunications and information-technology systems, notably 5G, and subject them to Chinese control (though both companies, of course, dispute the U.S. characterization of their activities).
Trump, by contrast, saw this not as a policy issue to be resolved but as an opportunity to make personal gestures to Xi. In 2018, for example, he reversed penalties that Ross and the Commerce Department had imposed on ZTE. In 2019, he offered to reverse criminal prosecution against Huawei if it would help in the trade deal—which, of course, was primarily about getting Trump re-elected in 2020.
These and innumerable other similar conversations with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency. Had Democratic impeachment advocates not been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019, had they taken the time to inquire more systematically about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy, the impeachment outcome might well have been different.
As the trade talks went on, Hong Kong’s dissatisfaction over China’s bullying had been growing. An extradition bill provided the spark, and by early June 2019, massive protests were under way in Hong Kong.
I first heard Trump react on June 12, upon hearing that some 1.5 million people had been at Sunday’s demonstrations. “That’s a big deal,” he said. But he immediately added, “I don’t want to get involved,” and, “We have human-rights problems too.”
I hoped Trump would see these Hong Kong developments as giving him leverage over China. I should have known better. That same month, on the 30th anniversary of China’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Trump refused to issue a White House statement. “That was 15 years ago,” he said, inaccurately. “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything.” And that was that.
Beijing’s repression of its Uighur citizens also proceeded apace. Trump asked me at the 2018 White House Christmas dinner why we were considering sanctioning China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim people who live primarily in China’s northwest Xinjiang Province.
At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said something very similar during his November 2017 trip to China.
Trump was particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan, having listened to Wall Street financiers who had gotten rich off mainland China investments. One of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, “This is Taiwan,” then point to the historic Resolute desk in the Oval Office and say, “This is China.” So much for American commitments and obligations to another democratic ally.
More thunder out of China came in 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic. China withheld, fabricated and distorted information about the disease; suppressed dissent from physicians and others; hindered efforts by the World Health Organization and others to get accurate information; and engaged in active disinformation campaigns, trying to argue that the new coronavirus did not originate in China.
There was plenty to criticize in Trump’s response, starting with the administration’s early, relentless assertion that the disease was “contained” and would have little or no economic effect. Trump’s reflex to try to talk his way out of anything, even a public-health crisis, only undercut his and the nation’s credibility, with his statements looking more like political damage control than responsible public-health advice.
Other criticisms of the administration, however, were frivolous. One such complaint targeted part of the general streamlining of NSC staffing I conducted in my first months at the White House. To reduce duplication and overlap and enhance coordination and efficiency, it made good management sense to shift the responsibilities of the NSC directorate dealing with global health and biodefense into the directorate dealing with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Bioweapon attacks and pandemics can have much in common, and the medical and public-health expertise required to deal with both threats goes hand in hand. Most of the personnel working in the prior global health directorate simply moved to the combined directorate and continued doing exactly what they were doing before.
At most, the internal NSC structure was the quiver of a butterfly’s wings in the tsunami of Trump’s chaos. Despite the indifference at the top of the White House, the cognizant NSC staffers did their duty in the pandemic, raising options like shutdowns and social distancing far before Trump did so in March. The NSC biosecurity team functioned exactly as it was supposed to. It was the chair behind the Resolute desk that was empty.
In today’s pre-2020 election climate, Trump has made a sharp turn to anti-China rhetoric. Frustrated in his search for the big China trade deal, and mortally afraid of the negative political effects of the coronavirus pandemic on his re-election prospects, Trump has now decided to blame China, with ample justification. Whether his actions will match his words remains to be seen. His administration has signaled that Beijing’s suppression of dissent in Hong Kong will have consequences, but no actual consequences have yet been imposed.
Most important of all, will Trump’s current China pose last beyond election day? The Trump presidency is not grounded in philosophy, grand strategy or policy. It is grounded in Trump. That is something to think about for those, especially China realists, who believe they know what he will do in a second term.
—Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., served as national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” which Simon & Schuster will publish on June 23.
Posted by Mladen Andrijasevic at 12:32 AM