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Home/Daniel Larison

The Price of American Incompetence

Stephen Walt comments on the implications of our government’s evident lack of competence:

A third pillar, however, is broad confidence in U.S. competence. When other countries recognize the United States’ strength, support its aims and believe U.S. officials know what they are doing, they are more likely to follow the United States’ lead. If they doubt its power, its wisdom, or its ability to act effectively, U.S. global influence inevitably erodes. This reaction is entirely understandable: If the United States’ leaders reveal themselves to be incompetent bunglers, why should foreign powers listen to their advice? Having a reputation for competence, in short, can be a critical force multiplier.

The U.S. has had the luxury of being able to bungle things for decades at relatively low cost to ourselves, but that time is coming to an end. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been able to make some staggering blunders without significantly compromising its position in the world, but over time all of these blunders have had the cumulative effect of proving that U.S. “leadership” is neither stabilizing nor wise. Because the U.S. has been able to get away with making such major blunders, there have not been enough demands for accountability for the policymakers who led the country into one failure after another. There has been no real penalty for costly incompetence, and so many of the same people that led us down the wrong path before are still in positions of influence and authority now. Trump’s election just accelerated the process by putting grossly unqualified yes-men into top positions in government to serve an even more unqualified president. For most of the last twenty years, the U.S. has been poorly led. For at least twelve of those years, we have had presidents who knew nothing and didn’t care to learn more. Administrations that promote ideologues and disparage expertise are bound to be tripped up by obstacles that they fail to see, and they will drive the country into a ditch over and over again while congratulating themselves on their fine steering.

One thing that all of the post-Cold War administrations share is an unfounded confidence in their own ability to achieve major goals overseas. They have invoked what the U.S. did decades before they were in power as proof of what the U.S. could do in their own time, but they were usually kidding themselves. On the whole, U.S. foreign policy over the last thirty years has been remarkably unsuccessful. U.S. policies have failed in part because their supporters made the mistake of thinking that there was something inherently efficacious about American “action” in the world. If the U.S. decided to “act,” these people assumed that success would follow. Iraq war hawks imagined that their fantasies for post-invasion Iraq would work out because “we did it” in Germany and Japan without paying any attention to the historical context of those earlier efforts or the unique conditions that prevailed in those countries after the war. They also spun implausible fantasies that post-invasion Iraq would be like post-1989 Europe without bothering to learn anything about Iraq’s history and people. The war’s supporters assumed that the U.S. would succeed in Iraq because the U.S. had prevailed at other times under completely different circumstances. In short, they didn’t think they needed expertise or know-how, and it showed.

Bush and Trump stand out as unusually incompetent presidents in this period, but Obama made his fair share of blunders. Besides escalating and prolonging a war in Afghanistan that couldn’t be won, Obama launched multiple illegal wars with little or no thought as to how they would turn out. He enabled the Saudi-led war on Yemen that marks its fifth anniversary this week, and he ordered intervention in Libya without thinking through what would follow from regime change there. In so many countries over the last several decades, the price of American incompetence has been paid in the blood of innocent people in the places that Washington arrogantly presumed to “help.” Tens of millions are still paying that price today, and they will keep paying until we acknowledge that our government lacks the competence and knowledge to police and oversee the affairs of other countries. Our government doesn’t know what it is doing abroad, and it is high time that it scaled back its ambitions.

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Our Iniquitous Economic Wars

Eli Clifton reminds us that cruel collective punishment of Iran has always been the purpose of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration:

The calls for economic collapse, military strikes, cheering food shortages, and demanding more “maximum pressure” come at a severe humanitarian cost. But for many in the Trump administration and their allies, that’s precisely the point, which explains why, up until now at least, that President Trump has refused to suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Broad sectoral sanctions that strangle a country’s economy can only be intended to harm and punish the population as a whole. Depriving the most vulnerable people in a country of access to essential medicine and cutting off the supply of ingredients that their own pharmaceutical companies need to produce their own drugs are the predictable and inevitable consequences of seeking to isolate and penalize an entire nation. This policy is indiscriminate by design and it hurts the poorest and sickest individuals hardest. This was true long before the outbreak, but the pandemic has shone a bright light on just how iniquitous our government’s use of sanctions really is. Like a siege, economic war saps a country’s resources, lowers the population’s resistance to disease, and deprives them of access to vital necessities, but it does so on a much grander scale and instead of trying to starve a fortress or city into submission it seeks to starve a state with tens of millions of people. If the means are cruel and wrong, the goal is fanatical and destructive. Iran hawks seek nothing less than the destabilization and collapse of the government and creating the chaos that would inevitably follow from that. That is why they hope to exploit the pandemic to pursue their obsession with regime change:

Yet some members of the Trump administration have speculated that with all the challenges Iran faces — the sanctions, a teetering economy, disputed elections and animosity over the violent suppression of protests — the coronavirus epidemic might be the thing that pushes the regime from power at last.

Trying to use a horrifying outbreak of a virus to achieve this goal is just the latest part of an ugly campaign to starve and bludgeon another nation into capitulating to their will.

Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute describes how sanctions exposed Iran to greater danger from the virus and impaired their ability to keep it under control:

Iran is one of the countries that has been hit hardest by Covid-19, with over 18,000 cases reported, the third-highest total after China and Italy, and over 1,200 recorded deaths as of March 19. Iran’s vulnerability to the virus is the result of a combination of forces and factors. As a result of US-led sanctions, Iran has become increasingly dependent on China, which made the government hesitate to distance the country from China during the initial phase of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Moreover, US sanctions have also weakened Iran’s health care sector, complicating the importation of basic items like masks and disinfectant, and dissuading pharmaceutical companies from selling to Iran. Even before the outbreak, a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch found that “restrictions on financial transactions drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports,” including medicines and medical equipment.

Added to all this is the fact that the economic war has already wrought significant damage on the Iranian economy. Many other countries that have been hit by large outbreaks of the virus had enjoyed fairly decent economic growth prior to the shutdowns that combating the virus required. Iran was starved of the resources it would need to undertake similar measures, and it remains largely cut off from sources of financing and aid that could help them to weather the storm. Other countries had more resources to fall back on to cushion the blow from the pandemic, but Iran’s cushion was stolen from them by years of sanctions. Iran’s situation was made worse by their government’s own incompetence and slow response, but as we can see governments of all different kinds have been caught flat-footed and have responded poorly to this new phenomenon. Iran is one of the few countries that has to deal with the effects of an economic war against them at the same time that they cope with a pandemic. As always, the people that suffer most because of this are the innocent and the sick.

The AP reports on the effect that sanctions are having on both Iran and Venezuela:

U.S. officials have brushed aside the criticism, saying that the sanctions allow the delivery of food and medicine. But most experts say shipments don’t materialize as Western companies are leery of doing business with either of the two governments.

“In most cases, compliance by banks makes it virtually impossible to do business,” said Jason Poblete, a sanctions lawyer in Washington who has represented American citizens held in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.

Venezuela has so far reported only a few cases of coronavirus, but the argument for lifting sanctions on Venezuela is even stronger than it is for Iran. Venezuela had already suffered an even longer, more debilitating humanitarian crisis before the pandemic, and sanctions have made it worse. There is widespread malnutrition and the health care system has deteriorated significantly. Venezuela will need all the help it can get if the virus continues to spread, and the least that the U.S. can do is to stop waging economic war on them.

The humanitarian exemptions to sanctions don’t work in practice, and one reason for that is that the administration doesn’t do the work of explaining to foreign firms and governments how to make use of them:

“The U.S. has to do a lot of work to make sure institutions understand it’s safe, otherwise no one wants to touch it,” Blanc said, while adding that he doesn’t think U.S. sanctions are to blame for the growing outbreak in Iran. “This administration has done the opposite by scaring off humanitarian aid. The messaging they’re sending is that there’s no way you can do the proper due diligence for something like this.”

Lifting sanctions would remove all doubt about this. The U.S. has it in its power to lift the sanctions and lighten the burden that the Iranian people have to bear, but because our Iran policy is being set by fanatics that won’t happen.

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Loosening Restrictions Now Would Be Disastrous

All the talk of loosening restrictions to “restart” the economy is extremely dangerous:

“We haven’t yet even seen signs that the growth is slowing, much less reversing. Now is the time to tighten restrictions on contacts that could transmit the virus, not loosen them [bold mine-DL],” Lipsitch said. “If we let up now we can be virtually certain that health care will be overwhelmed in many if not all parts of the country. This is the view of every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of.”

Reversing course and backtracking on the restrictions that have already been put in place would be as foolish as can be. If we think of the virus as a raging fire, social isolation and closing non-essential businesses serve as the suppressants that deprive the fire of fuel and smother it. To ease up on those suppressants at a time when the fire is still raging out of control is to give up on trying to stop it from spreading. Attempting to go back to business as usual in the middle of this amounts to fanning the flames and ensuring that the conflagration consumes more lives. It would be exceptionally short-sighted and irresponsible to lessen restrictions after just a few weeks. The U.S. is just beginning to take the measures that we should have started taking months ago, and stopping them now would put us even deeper in the hole that we find ourselves in. There can be no going back to a relatively normal way of life until the spread of the virus is put in check and the rate of infection has been slowed to a point where our hospitals are not overwhelmed. It is lunacy that this is even being debated in the White House when the effort to bring this outbreak under control has barely begun.

Gabriel Sherman reports on the increasing tensions between the president and Dr. Anthony Fauci:

Sources say that Trump is leaning toward telling at least some Americans to return to work after the 15-day social-distancing period ends on March 31. This puts Trump on a potential collision course with Fauci that many fear will end with Fauci being fired or quitting. “Fauci is the best medical expert we have. We can’t lose him,” a former White House official said. Signs of tension between Trump and Fauci have been emerging. Over the weekend, Fauci gave a series of candid interviews. “I’ve been telling the president things he doesn’t want to hear,” Fauci told Maureen Dowd. “I have publicly had to say something different with what he states. It’s a risky business.” Fauci told Science magazine: “When you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens. So, I’m going to keep pushing.”

Trump’s view that he can ignore Fauci’s opinion may be influenced by advice he’s getting from Jared Kushner, whose outside-the-box efforts have often rankled those in charge of managing the crisis. According to two sources, Kushner has told Trump about experimental treatments he’s heard about from executives in Silicon Valley. “Jared is bringing conspiracy theories to Trump about potential treatments,” a Republican briefed on the conversations told me. Another former West Wing official told me: “Trump is like an 11-year-old boy waiting for the fairy godmother to bring him a magic pill.”

According to this report, Trump is “increasingly frustrated” with Fauci and various state governors because they are urging the costly but necessary measures for protecting public health. According to The New York Timesreport today, the president doesn’t like that Fauci contradicts his erroneous statements:

But Mr. Trump has become frustrated with Dr. Fauci’s blunt approach at the briefing lectern, which often contradicts things the president has just said, according to two people familiar with the dynamic.

Fauci wouldn’t have to contradict the president if Trump said as little as possible or simply stuck to the facts, but neither of those seems likely. The problem here is that the president is interested in a quick fix, or the appearance of a quick fix, and Fauci is interested in finding a genuine solution. They will inevitably contradict each other because one of them wants to be perceived as successfully handling the crisis while doing as little as possible and the other wants to do the work required to manage the crisis effectively. The informed experts that understand the nature of the problem know that there can be no quick fix, and the danger is that the impatient and impulsive president sooner or later just stops paying any attention to what they have to say.

The administration should be working overtime with Congress to deliver workers and businesses essential relief. Hospitals are in desperate need of equipment and funding. These are the things that should be occupying the energies of everyone in the White House, and it is obvious from these reports that this isn’t happening.

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Protecting Life Is More Important Than ‘the Economy’

President Trump, Vice President Pence (DoD)

The “wartime” president already wants to surrender:

President Donald Trump began talking privately late last week about reopening the nation, despite the swiftly rising number of coronavirus cases and against the advice of health professionals [bold mine-DL], because he’s worried about the economic damage from an extended shutdown, according to people familiar with his thinking.

The shortage of testing kits has made it difficult to assess the full spread of the virus, but Trump and a contingent of his aides, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, want to ensure that the economic damage from a nationwide “social distancing” campaign doesn’t outweigh the potential toll from the virus itself, the people said.

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” Trump tweeted late Sunday.

The U.S. hasn’t begun to bring the outbreak under control, so it is far too early to talk about loosening restrictions. Many Americans are still not taking this seriously enough after months of misinformation and lies from the president and his allies as they sought to minimize the problem. The fact that the president is even considering this is a terrible sign, because it shows that he is entertaining the possibility of giving up on protecting public health and safety. An extended shutdown is very costly and disruptive, but relaxing restrictions after only a few weeks will lead to a wider contagion that affects many more people. Then the U.S. will have to clamp down again even harder, and the same economic damage will be done along with more loss of life. The country is in this position in large part because of the slow and inadequate government response that has left us blind to the full extent of the virus’ spread. We will be playing catch-up for months because of the testing failure, the massive equipment shortage, and the president’s own foot-dragging.

The shutdown has been made longer by our lack of preparedness and the incompetence of the initial handling of the crisis, and trying to relax restrictions too soon will just prolong the ordeal unnecessarily. The president was far too slow to take the outbreak seriously, and now he is being far too quick in wanting to go back to business as usual. Just by raising the possibility of changing course in a couple weeks encourages people to dismiss the guidance they are getting from health professionals, and it gives people false hope that this will be over soon when it won’t be. It is another misleading message that contradicts everything that responsible officials have been trying to get across to the public for the last two months.

I don’t like the president’s “war” rhetoric when it comes to the coronavirus. Whenever the government has declared war on something it has usually ended up producing more of that thing, and it is a testament to how thoroughly militarized our way of thinking has become that many of us can’t conceive of significant collection action or social solidarity except in the context of war. But in spite of his talk of fighting and winning this “war,” the president is now floating the idea that we might need to give up and effectively let the virus run rampant through the country. That would be a catastrophe for our hospitals and health care professionals, and it would cause much greater loss of life. One of the government’s most important responsibilities is protecting its citizens from harm. To knowingly choose a path that would lead to the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions of our people would be an act of unspeakable cowardice and weakness.

The government has the means to lessen the severity of economic contraction through its own spending to support workers and businesses through this shutdown, but it cannot raise victims of the outbreak from the dead. Putting “the economy” ahead of protecting the lives of Americans who are most at risk of serious illness and death is an awful idea, and it has to be rejected.

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The Unprepared States of America

The president has repeatedly defended his administration’s coronavirus response by saying that no one could have seen the pandemic coming. As usual, that’s not true. The president received intelligence reports in January and February that warned him of how bad the outbreak could be:

Intelligence agencies “have been warning on this since January,” said a U.S. official who had access to intelligence reporting that was disseminated to members of Congress and their staffs as well as to officials in the Trump administration, and who, along with others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive information.

“Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it,” this official said. “The system was blinking red.”

The president was told about how severe the outbreak might be, but he did not believe what he was being told. We have often seen how the president dismisses the findings of intelligence agencies when their reports conflict with his ignorant preconceived notions or his short-term self-interest. If they tell him that Iran is complying with the JCPOA, he ignores the information and insists that Iran has been cheating. When they tell him that Mohamed bin Salman was responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s murder, he dismisses the conclusion and helps cover up for the crown prince. More generally, Trump makes a habit of denying facts when they are inconvenient or embarrassing to acknowledge, and he makes things up that never happened to make it seem as if his failures are actually successes. He insists against all evidence that North Korea has committed to disarm because it flatters him to pretend that this happened. A president who is constantly at war with the truth and engaged in shameless self-promotion at every turn is not going to respond well to reports of an impending disaster, and then when the disaster strikes he will respond by misleading the public about what is happening.

Even now that the pandemic is here and spreading throughout the country, the president is reluctant to take necessary actions to combat it:

President Trump and his advisers have resisted calls from congressional Democrats and a growing number of governors to use a federal law that would mobilize industry and provide badly needed resources against the coronavirus spread, days after the president said he would consider using that authority.

Mr. Trump has given conflicting signals about the Defense Production Act since he first said on Wednesday that he was prepared to invoke the law, which was passed by Congress at the outset of the Korean War and grants presidents extraordinary powers to force American industries to ensure the availability of critical equipment.

Despite Trump’s desire to portray himself as a “wartime president,” his response remains as dilatory as ever. It is not surprising that the president who has routinely invoked non-existent national security emergencies to impose tariffs or evade Congressional scrutiny on arms sales is completely useless when it comes to a real emergency.

A pandemic like this one was not only foreseeable, it was foreseen. There were many earlier warnings that the U.S. was ill-prepared for it. Just last year, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted an exercise to simulate how a pandemic might spread across the country, and their scenario was uncannily prescient:

That scenario, code-named “Crimson Contagion” and imagining an influenza pandemic, was simulated by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in a series of exercises that ran from last January to August.

The simulation’s sobering results — contained in a draft report dated October 2019 that has not previously been reported — drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.

The draft report, marked “not to be disclosed,” laid out in stark detail repeated cases of “confusion” in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.

The findings of the report did not lead to any major changes or improvements to the government’s preparedness. In addition to this administration’s specific failings, the government’s lack of readiness to cope with a pandemic is a systemic failure that comes from devoting too few resources and paying too little attention to a serious threat. There were plenty of warnings, but no one in a position to make necessary changes was taking those warnings seriously:

But the planning and thinking happened many layers down in the bureaucracy. The knowledge and sense of urgency about the peril appear never to have gotten sufficient attention at the highest level of the executive branch or from Congress, leaving the nation with funding shortfalls, equipment shortages and disorganization within and among various branches and levels of government.

The shortage of protective equipment across the country is the most obvious and alarming example of how the government’s unpreparedness is putting our doctors and nurses at great risk. The failure to build up a sufficient stockpile of N95 masks is an indictment of our government’s priorities. Our government has wasted trillions on unnecessary wars and hundreds of billions on boondoggles that serve no purpose, but somehow it could not be bothered to spend a relative pittance to ensure that there were enough respirators in the event of a pandemic. Tyler Rogoway comments:

The defense budget for the 2020 Fiscal Year is $738 billion. Funding the larger intelligence and national security ecosystem costs many billions of dollars in addition to this sum. This is money being spent in the name of protecting the American people. For a country that can spend that type of treasure on weapons and warfighting infrastructure, it is downright astonishing that it can’t keep a stockpile of cheap respirators around, or at least guarantee the domestic production base to rapidly build more, in order to fight a pandemic that was not only far from unthinkable, it was inevitable. This simple fact alone should make you furious and question the priorities of the U.S. government and those who are tasked with presiding over it.

The N95 respirator is not a high-tech piece of equipment. Far from it. They are disposable masks that, when fitted and worn properly, offer a reliable barrier against a number of things, including viruses. They are considered as essential for healthcare workers who treat patients with infectious diseases that can be transmitted through droplets of bodily fluids, offering them some certainty that they themselves will not end up contracting the patient’s illness. As such, they are absolutely critical to fighting a pandemic just like the one we are experiencing. In other words, they are just as important to keeping the American public safe as combat aircraft or a fighting ship.

In a very real sense, essential medical equipment like this is far more important to the safety and security of Americans than this expensive military hardware. The U.S. is very good at being able to project power and inflict death and destruction on distant lands, but when it comes to investing in the most basic preparations to protect the health and lives of its own citizens at home it comes up woefully short.

It has been obvious for a long time that the vast majority of our military budget has little or nothing to do with defending this country. Politicians and policymakers have spent decades exaggerating distant, manageable threats to justify unnecessary and costly interventions, and at the same time they neglected to prepare the country for the very real and immediate threat that we now face. When it comes to providing for real national defense against a threat like a pandemic, the government has shortchanged us. There are many Americans that are going to get sick and there are some that will die when that could have been prevented through better preparation.

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The Insanity of the Iran Obsession

Trump's ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. Credit: photocosmos1/Shutterstock

Even at a time when the U.S. is facing a major health crisis here at home, you can always count on the Iran hawks in the Trump administration to keep agitating for escalation and war with Iran:

President Trump was getting ready to declare the coronavirus a “national emergency,” but inside the White House last Thursday, a tense debate erupted among the president and his top advisers on a far different subject: whether the United States should escalate military action against Iran, a longtime American rival that has been devastated by the epidemic.

The division in the administration is between the hard-liners in the administration that want to attack the Iranian military directly and the U.S. military that doesn’t want to jeopardize the relationship with Iraq any further. According to the report, the Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and the acting Director of National Intelligence all urged a larger attack earlier this month. It was only the Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that argued against this. They prevailed in the debate because they said that they did not have evidence that the latest rocket attack on was directed by Iran:

But Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies did not have clear evidence that the attacks, launched by the Shiite militia group Khataib Hezbollah, had been ordered by Iran, they argued, and warned that a large-scale response could draw the United States into a wider war with Iran and rupture already strained relations with Iraq.

The military’s position prevailed, at least for the time being.

While the administration has so far proved to be inept in handling a genuinely pressing crisis here at home, some top officials keep trying to embroil the U.S. in yet another foreign conflict at a time when we absolutely cannot afford it. It is remarkable that there is no one in any part of the administration arguing for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq at this time. A continued military presence in Iraq is more irrelevant to U.S. security than ever, but the administration continues to operate as if nothing has changed.

The split among top administration officials is a familiar one. On one side, there are the Iran-obsessed civilians at State and the White House that can’t wait to use force and expose U.S. troops to greater dangers, and on the other there is the military leadership that has no interest in their plans:

That divide was on display during several top-level meetings on March 12, hours before Mr. Trump authorized the strikes. Before the meeting Mr. Trump convened with his top advisers, a lower-level meeting descended into acrimony when Brian H. Hook, the State Department’s top Iran adviser, erupted at Pentagon officials who professed not to have seen the military options being prepared for Mr. Trump, according to senior administration officials with knowledge of the meeting.

As expected, Trump’s decision to make Grenell the acting DNI has put another vocal Iran hawk in a key position at a dangerous time:

Later that day, the debate that played out in front of the president involved Mr. Pompeo and others arguing that limited airstrikes were more likely to perpetuate a cycle of violence than to break it. The secretary of state, backed by the new acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, argued that a more direct strike on Iran — such as hitting its naval vessels — could take the country by surprise and push its leaders to the negotiating table.

Of course, the illegal assassination of Soleimani was also supposed to take Iranian leaders by “surprise” and put a stop to the rocket attacks, but the rocket attacks have continued (whether directed by Iran or not) and Iran responded to the assassination with its own direct attack on U.S. forces in January. If the U.S. had done what Pompeo and Grenell wanted, Iran’s government would have almost certainly felt compelled to respond in kind with another direct attack on U.S. forces. In addition to dealing with a devastating pandemic, we would have found ourselves on the brink of war for the third time in less than a year, and all of this has happened as a result of the administration’s Iran obsession. Fortunately the hard-liners lost the debate this time, but it is insane that the administration is still having internal debates over attacking Iran when our country has much bigger and more immediate problems that require the full attention of our political leaders.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

As an Iraq war veteran, I’m furious U.S. troops are still dying there 17 years later. Dan Caldwell calls for full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The immoral cruelty of the administration’s refusal to grant Iran sanctions relief. Tyler Cullis condemns the Trump administration’s Iran policy as “wrongheaded and ignorant” and “fundamentally immoral.”

Trump administration piles on sanctions as the rest of the world helps Iran. Barbara Slavin contrasts the intensifying U.S. economic war on Iran with the humanitarian assistance provided by other countries.

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Applying ‘Maximum Pressure’ in a Pandemic Is Sick

Spencer Ackerman reports on the deleterious effects of sanctions on the Iranian people as they face the coronavirus outbreak:

“We are not safe in any place until everyone all over the world is safe,” Paul Anatharajah Tambyah, the president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, told the Wall Street Journal about a new wave of COVID-19 cases in east Asia.

“You have to facilitate these medical goods. Anyone who argues otherwise, or does otherwise, is a sociopath or a moron,” [bold mine-DL] said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who monitored Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned. “The U.S. should be busting its ass to make sure permissible medical exports are available to Iran. It’s in our self-interest.”

There is a ghoulish fanaticism at work in the “maximum pressure” campaign that treats the health and lives of innocent Iranians as expendable in service to the cause of destabilizing and bringing down their government. Iran hawks often like to compare their obsession with toppling the regime with Reagan’s policy towards the Soviet Union, but the difference between what they are doing now and how Reagan responded could not be more stark. When there was a devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the U.S. provided considerable aid to help the victims of that disaster. Even the Bush administration was willing to airlift assistance to Iran after the Bam earthquake in 2003. The coronavirus pandemic is an even more serious emergency if the worst-case estimates are to be believed, so the U.S. willingness to assist Iran should be commensurately greater, but instead of relief and aid the administration offers more punishment and empty rhetoric. As Blanc says, helping Iran through this crisis is also in our own interest. Helping other countries to bring the outbreak under control is the right thing to do, but if that is not reason enough we should realize that it is also helping to protect ourselves.

Ackerman also spoke to Hooman Majd:

“It really is immoral,” he continued. “If we’re asking our own people to take care of our fellow human beings by not going to restaurants, not going to movies, and by suspending our lives, can’t we suspend the sanctions, even if you don’t want to lift them?”

The “maximum pressure” campaign is unjust, but to continue it in the midst of a public health disaster is truly sick and twisted. The administration’s refusal to offer sanctions relief at a time like this shows how irrational and malevolent this policy is, and it should make us all realize how senseless and destructive the economic war has been from the start.

Tyler Cullis condemned the recent administration move to impose even more sanctions:

Not only is the Trump administration’s policy to Iran wrongheaded and ignorant, it is also fundamentally immoral — and nowhere has this been more clear than in the present crisis. Holding an entire people hostage in the moment of their deepest crisis is what the most thuggish of regimes do the world over. Yet that is the policy Secretary Pompeo advances towards Iran today.

Pompeo’s recent sanctions announcement expressed the Trump administration’s contempt for the Iranian people. Reagan’s message in 1988 could not have been more different:

Those of you who answered the appeal for help, who have assisted in the relief effort, and those who flew to the Soviet Union and sifted through the rubble, searching for life against all odds, carried with you a message from America. It was a message of peace. You conveyed what was truly a universal message, one for us all to remember at this time of year: that every life is infinitely precious, a gift from God [bold mine-DL]. So, whatever language we speak, whatever country we may live in, whatever our race or religious faith, we’re all one people on this Earth. And in times of suffering, in the face of natural disaster, we’re drawn by our common humanity to help one another, to join in a great brotherhood of man.

There are few things that should make us more aware of our common humanity than a pandemic that threatens all of us, and we ought to be doing whatever we can to help Iranians and all other nations suffering from this disaster. At the very least, our government shouldn’t be waging a cruel economic war on tens of millions of innocents in service to some decades-old vendetta, and it should lift all sanctions to give the people of Iran a better chance to prevail against this threat.

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The Corrupt Senators and Coronavirus

Rod Dreher called attention to the initial NPR report that Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned big money donors about the likely severity of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. at a private meeting while saying none of this to the public:

This top Senate Republican (and no doubt other Senate Republicans) knew that the president was misleading the public, and said nothing. If he felt comfortable telling wealthy donors about this, why didn’t he tell the general public? Because it would contradict the president’s messaging? Why?

The original NPR story reflects very poorly on Burr. He not only gave preferential treatment to donors, but he failed to alert the public to what he knew in a timely fashion. Even if he were doing this for merely cynical political reasons to stay on Trump’s good side, it would be a dereliction of duty. But there is more to the story. ProPublica has learned more damning details that show that Burr sold more than $1 million worth in stock in the weeks prior to the market crash based on the advance information that he and other senators possessed following a briefing in late January:

Soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, sold off a significant percentage of his stocks, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions.

As the head of the intelligence committee, Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has access to the government’s most highly classified information about threats to America’s security. His committee was receiving daily coronavirus briefings around this time, according to a Reuters story.

A week after Burr’s sales, the stock market began a sharp decline and has lost about 30% since.

Burr allegedly used privileged information that he received as as an elected official for his own private benefit. It appears that Burr withheld what he knew from the public, and he made sure to pull a lot of money out of the market because he knew the effect that the outbreak was going to have before almost everyone else. This represents not only a serious breach of the public’s trust, but it is also a flagrant example of corruption of public office for personal gain. The senator needs to resign, and if charges can be brought against him they should be.

Burr was apparently not the only senator to take advantage of the information he received. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her husband (the chairman and CEO of the NYSE) did the same thing:

The Senate’s newest member sold off seven figures worth of stock holdings in the days and weeks after a private, all-senators meeting on the novel coronavirus that subsequently hammered U.S. equities.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) reported the first sale of stock jointly owned by her and her husband on Jan. 24, the very day that her committee, the Senate Health Committee, hosted a private, all-senators briefing from administration officials, including the CDC director and Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institutes of Health of the United States, on the coronavirus.

The timeline shows that Loeffler almost immediately started dumping stock after receiving the Jan. 24 briefing on the virus:

Loeffler assumed office on Jan. 6 after having been appointed to the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson. Between then and Jan. 23 she did not report a single stock transaction from accounts owned by her individually or by her and her husband jointly.

Between Jan. 24 and Feb. 14, by contrast, Loeffler reported selling stock jointly owned with her husband worth between $1,275,000 and $3,100,000, according to transaction reports filed with Senate ethics officials.

Burr and Loeffler appear to have broken the law, and they did so to enrich themselves in the middle of a public health catastrophe. Rather than doing their duty and telling their constituents what they knew, they were more concerned to take their profits before the market crashed. At the very least, neither of them should be a senator and neither should hold an office of public trust again. If there were any other members of Congress that tried to use this information about the outbreak for their own profit, the same goes for them. Loeffler has not yet been elected in her own right, and she faces Georgian voters for the first time this fall. Somehow I doubt that voters in Georgia will appreciate being lied to and endangered while one of their senators put her portfolio ahead of their interests.

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