Monday, November 30, 2020

The New Yorker

 Why the Assassination of a Scientist Will Have No Impact on Iran’s Nuclear Program

By Robin Wright
The roadside assassination, last week, of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was an elaborate intelligence operation that played out like a blockbuster thriller, according to unusually candid accounts by the Iranian media. Fakhrizadeh, who was around sixty and had a graying beard, and also a bit of a paunch, has often been compared to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of America’s atomic bomb, and A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Fakhrizadeh had enough secrets in his head that he was followed around by a team of bodyguards; he also held the title of brigadier general.
The attack provoked fury in Iran, breathless headlines around the world, and a lot of speculation about retaliation, which could, in turn, spark a mini-war. No one claimed responsibility. But the hit, which required detailed intelligence about a secretive official’s weekend plans, his timing, and his route, mirrored four previous assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Carried out between 2010 and 2012, the previous operations were widely associated with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. 
The glaring irony of the sensational operation is that it will probably have a negligible impact on Iran’s nuclear program. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The New Yorker

Our Brains Explain the Season’s Sadness

I’ve been consumed this fall with a melancholy sadness. It’s different from the loneliness that I felt in the early stage of the pandemic, during the lockdown, when I took a picture of my shadow after a neighborhood walk failed to jumpstart exercise endorphins. Eleven months after covid-19 spread globally, and during what would otherwise be a joyous Thanksgiving, my sorrow, and surely the emotion of many others, is more complicated. Studies by health-care professionals show that our emotional challenges, from anxiety and depression to anger and fear, have been deepened by the pandemic. In June, just three months into a historic health crisis, a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that forty per cent of Americans were already struggling with at least one mental-health issue. Among young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, one in four had thought about committing suicide during the previous thirty days. By July, more than half of Americans over the age of eighteen said their mental health had been negatively affected by emotions evoked during the pandemic, the Kaiser Family Foundation found. In October, A.A.R.P. reported that two-thirds of Americans felt increased anxiety.

For Americans, the pandemic’s spring scourge intersected with appalling human tragedies and unprecedented political rancor over the summer: the racial tension and unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, in the Midwest; soaring unemployment, business shutdowns, and hunger nationwide; the raging wildfires in the West and record-setting tropical storms in the South; and a bizarre and bitter Presidential campaign. Each calamity intensified our emotional state. Now, our anxieties are further compounded by holidays without loved ones—at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah, then the New Year—and by the numbing rate of coronavirus infections and the darkening hours of winter. 

Cheer up. Just understanding the phenomenon—and the science of the brain that copes with crisis—helps a lot. In an excellent and timely new book, “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live,” Nicholas Christakis writes that epidemics also produce fear and grief that “can themselves be contagious, forming a kind of parallel epidemic.” Christakis, a sociologist and physician who directs the Human Nature Lab, at Yale, described a phenomenon called “the cascades of grief.” He told me, “If the plague is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, then grief is its squire.” Christakis quoted the Greek general and historian Thucydides, who noted during a plague in the fifth century B.C. that “the most terrible feature in the malady” was public despair.

This year’s simultaneous health, social, natural, and political crises have produced psychological phases, almost like seasons, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, told me. “Early on, I saw a lot of solidarity,” she said. It was visible when people took to their balconies or streets during the first phase of the pandemic to bang pots in support of medical workers and first responders. 

But over the summer, fatigue and denial set in. Holt-Lunstad explained, “Initially, we all hoped that the pandemic was a short-term pause in life, but it lasted much longer than many anticipated.” Social distancing and other restrictions exhausted patience and increased frustration; some got tired of complying, and others took them as an affront to personal freedoms. 

The way our feelings bounce biologically off social networks is primitive and ancient, Christakis told me. “Our emotions have a collective existence. They depend not only on your own genes and experiences. They also depend on the biochemistry, genetics, physiology, thoughts, feelings, and actions of the people to whom we are directly—or even indirectly—connected.” Our emotional state depends on what’s happening around us. “It’s the same with the germ and the same with emotions,” he said. And it’s not limited to humans. Other species experience it as well. “If you map the social networks of elephants, you find that they are structurally the same as among humans—and our last common ancestor is from eighty-five million years ago,” he said. Read on...

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The New Yorker

 What Will A Vengeful President 

Do to The World in His Final Weeks?

Donald Trump, whose mood in his final weeks varies from sulking to spiteful, seems to be plotting to rescue his own image by derailing the Presidency of the man who defeated him. Joe Biden was already going to inherit a world far more dangerous than it was four years ago, but Trump’s final acts on foreign policy threaten to slow, complicate, or stymie Biden’s attempts to stabilize the country and the world.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

 The Seven Pillars of Biden’s Foreign Policy

Anne Hidalgo, the first female mayor of Paris, succinctly framed the global reaction to Joe Biden’s election. “Welcome back America,” she tweeted. For all the past resentment, envy, or fear of American power, most long-standing allies, and even many adversaries, have yearned for an end to the unnerving pettiness, whimsy, and personality-driven policies of Donald Trump. “Almost all countries are happier with Biden than Trump, even those that made it look like they were close to him, like Japan,” Robin Niblett, the director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, or Chatham House, in London, told me. “Trump’s unpredictability and reliance on bilateral bullying to get his way built up deep resentment.”

The President-elect may prove more popular abroad than he is at home, partly because of his global experience. Between his first election to the Senate, in 1972, and becoming Vice-President, in 2009, Biden did two stints as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, travelled for decades to conflict hot spots and disaster zones, and met with nearly a hundred and fifty foreign leaders from almost five dozen countries. The President-elect is a well-known commodity. So are his views.

“Certainly Biden is the most well-versed American President in the sausage-making process of foreign policy, and in terms of learning about every country and how each functions,” Douglas Brinkley, a scholar of the Presidency at Rice University, told me. “Nobody’s had the experience on foreign policy that Biden has had.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The New Yorker

 America, the Infected and Vulnerable

Just as the White House became an epicenter of the pandemic and congressional negotiations on the ailing economy collapsed, the Pentagon made its own startling announcement on Tuesday. The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff—the highest-ranking officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and other services—went into quarantine for two weeks. These are not only commanders who control the world’s mightiest military, run wars, order bombings, and authorize special-operations raids; they are part of the most consistent and sane wing of the American government right now.

The Joint Chiefs are the highest-ranking members of the military to be impacted by the pandemic, but far from the only ones. As of Wednesday morning, almost seventy thousand members or employees of the military—who put their lives at risk daily to protect the country—have been infected, the Pentagon reported on a special Web site about covid-19. Almost forty per cent of the two hundred and thirty-one U.S. military installations around the world still face travel restrictions because of the pandemic. From multiple angles, including the fact that President Trump is also Commander-in-Chief, the coronavirus is now a genuine national-security threat for the United States. And the rest of the world knows it. The potential dangers abound. Read on....

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The New Yorker

Presidential Illnesses Have Change the Course of World History

The world might be a different place if American Presidents had not been felled by disease or hidden debilitating conditions. In February, 1945, just two months before his death, President Franklin Roosevelt—paralyzed by polio, weakened by congestive heart failure, and with his blood pressure hitting 260/150—travelled all the way to Yalta, a resort on the Crimean coast, to meet the Soviet Premier, Joseph Stalin, and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. F.D.R. was by then a shell of a man, with skin hanging from his bones, raccoon rings around his eyes, and hands that often shook. But he agreed to the six-thousand-mile journey because the final phase of the Second World War and its aftermath were at stake. He wanted Stalin’s coöperation on a new international organization to foster peace, principles for governing countries liberated from Nazi rule in Europe, and military help in the Pacific theatre against Japan.

In the Yalta Declaration, the three leaders set the stage—or so Roosevelt thought—for the postwar world. They agreed to Stalin’s request to divvy up Germany, Roosevelt’s dream of the United Nations, and to ceding chunks of Asia to the Soviet sphere. The most sensitive point was the fate of Eastern Europe after liberation from the Nazis. The three leaders pledged to allow those countries to form governments “representative of all democratic elements” and to facilitate imminent and free elections. Stalin specifically agreed to early elections in strategic Poland, which had been liberated by Soviet troops, and to allow non-Communist members to participate. Upon his return home, Roosevelt gave a speech to Congress extolling the “unanimous” agreements with Moscow. “Never before have the major Allies been more closely united—not only in their war aims but also in their peace aims,” he boasted. More important than the agreement, he said, “We achieved a unity of thought and a way of getting along together.”

Except that Stalin reneged on his commitments, as well as on the spirit of Yalta, in ways that shaped the next half century. Read on....

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The New Yorker

 Is America a Myth?

By Robin Wright

The United States feels like it is unraveling. It’s not just because of a toxic election season, a national crisis over race, unemployment and hunger in the land of opportunity, or a pandemic that’s killing tens of thousands every month. The foundation of our nation has deepening cracks—possibly too many to repair anytime soon, or, perhaps, at all. The ideas and imagery of America face existential challenges—some with reason, some without—that no longer come only from the fringes. Rage consumes many in America. And it may only get worse after the election, and for the next four years, no matter who wins. Our political and cultural fissures have generated growing doubt about the stability of a country that long considered itself an anchor, a model, and an exception to the rest of the world. Scholars, political scientists, and historians even posit that trying to unite disparate states, cultures, ethnic groups, and religions was always illusory.

“The idea that America has a shared past going back into the colonial period is a myth,” Colin Woodard, the author of "Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood," told me. “We are very different Americas, each with different origin stories and value sets, many of which are incompatible. They led to a Civil War in the past and are a potentially incendiary force in the future.” Read on....

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The New Yorker

 A Dubious Pompeo Speech 
for an Empty Trump Foreign Policy

By Robin Wright

On the second night of the Republican National Convention, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is widely known in Washington to have his own Presidential ambitions, broke with long-standing diplomatic tradition and delivered a glowing speech about Donald Trump’s “bold initiatives” in “nearly every corner of the world.” Speaking from the rooftop of a Jerusalem hotel, while on a taxpayer-funded trip through the Middle East, Pompeo praised the President for exposing China’s “predatory aggression,” getting North Korea to the negotiating table, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and the recent diplomatic opening between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Yet what was most striking about the surprisingly stiff and skimpy speech was how much Trump hasn’t done in four years—and even that at a cost. He’s devastated America’s reputation globally. He’s done little to confront dictators or counter competing powers. And his policies on the defining issues of our time are too often empty, even illusory. In 2020, America is a shell of the nation it once was on the global stage.

As Trump seeks reëlection, some of the toughest criticism on his foreign policy is from other Republicans, including a scathing joint condemnation last week by seventy-five senior Republican officials from four Administrations. “Without question, Trump has denigrated our standing with friends and with foes. They all think less of us,” Richard Armitage, one of the signatories, and the Deputy Secretary of State during the George W. Bush Administration and Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration, told me. “Our standing globally has not been this low since the end of the Cold War and probably not since before World War Two. . . . People don’t really care about us. They’re so over us because of this guy.” Read on....

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The New Yorker

The Miracle of Breeding a Panda Cub During a Pandemic
By Robin Wright

In a year of tortured politics, nationwide protests, and a highly contagious pandemic, our troubled republic finally has something to celebrate. Washington, D.C., has a panda cub. Mei Xiang, a mellow matriarch who weighs in at two hundred and thirty pounds, gave birth to a tiny, hairless pink cub weighing just ounces, at 6:35 p.m. Friday, at the National Zoo. The wee panda, the size of a butter stick, introduced itself with a howling squawk. The birth defied the zoological odds—Mei’s advanced age, the life-long failure of her partner panda, Tian Tian, to figure out how to mate, the zoo’s inability to extract fresh sperm from him fast, and, especially, the many complications from the covid-19 pandemic. A week after the pandemic forced the National Zoo to close, on March 14th, Mei began to ovulate. Most of the zoo’s staff were ordered to stay at home or reduce hours. In a race against time, a small team of reproduction specialists—all willing to risk the rules of social distancing—thawed eight hundred million sperm to artificially inseminate Mei, knowing that it probably wouldn’t work. “It’s overcoming the odds, and if there was ever a need for a sense of overcoming the odds, it’s now,” Brandie Smith, the zoo’s deputy director, told me. “People need this. It’s the story of hope, and the story of success, and the story of joy.” Read on....

Friday, August 14, 2020

The New Yorker

Israel's New Peace Deal Transforms the Middle East 

By Robin Wright

In 1982, a Palestinian fighter told me a dark joke on the day that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon forced six thousand P.L.O. guerrillas to retreat on ships for distant lands. The story began with God telling President Ronald Reagan, the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and the P.L.O. chief, Yasir Arafat, that he would answer one question from each of them. Reagan went first. “How long will it be before capitalism rules the world?” he asked. God replied, “A hundred years.” Reagan began to cry. “Why?” God said. “Because it won’t happen in my lifetime,” the President responded. Brezhnev then asked, “How long will it be before the whole world is Communist?” God replied, “Two hundred years.” Brezhnev began to cry because that, too, wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. Then Arafat asked, “God, how long will it be before there is a state for my people in Palestine?” And God cried.

On Thursday, the White House announced a historic agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich sheikhdom and long-time ally of the Palestinians, to normalize diplomatic relations. The surprise deal—expected to be signed at a White House ceremony in the coming weeks—will include opening embassies, trade and technology exchanges, direct flights and tourism, and coöperation on energy, security, and intelligence. In Tel Aviv, the city hall lit up with side-by-side flags of Israel and the U.A.E. The Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, invited the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, to visit. Read on...

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The New Yorker

 After Twin Explosions, 
an “Apocalypse” in Lebanon
By Robin Wright

Pity Lebanon. The charming Mediterranean nation, smaller than Connecticut, survived a fifteen-year civil war, from 1975 to 1990, that became a battlefield for the entire Middle East—sucking in arms, armies, and issues from around the world. It has endured bombings, hostage-takings, and mass killings by dozens of militias, including the powerful P.L.O. and Hezbollah, both of which used Lebanese soil in order to fight Israel. It has navigated the labyrinthine politics of eighteen religious sects, each officially recognized and allocated proportionate shares of government jobs. It picked up the pieces after the assassinations of Presidents and Prime Ministers, Cabinet members, and Members of Parliament and occupations by Syrian and Israeli troops. It’s been rocked by a series of national protests—from the Cedar Revolution, in 2005, that ousted one government, to the October, 2019, uprising that forced out another Prime Minister. For decades, Lebanon has defied the odds. During an interview on his old Comedy Central show, Stephen Colbert asked me which of the dozen wars that I’ve covered was my favorite. No question: Lebanon and its strife, for my wonderment of that country’s creative, resilient people and its physical beauty as well as the epic political stakes for the country, the region, and the world.

No longer. Lebanon is now on the verge of collapse. It was already a failing state before twin explosions ripped through Beirut’s scenic port, shortly after rush hour began, at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. The second blast set off a billowing mushroom cloud, reminiscent of a nuclear bomb, and registered seismic waves equivalent to a 3.3-magnitude earthquake. The explosion was heard as far away as Cyprus, an island more than a hundred and twenty miles to the northwest. The Lebanese government appealed to every ambulance in the country to head for Beirut. Read on...

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The New Yorker

 Is America Becoming a Banana Republic?

By Robin Wright

In the early nineteen-hundreds, the American writer O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” in a series of short stories, most famously in one about the fictional country of Anchuria. It was based on his experience in Honduras, where he had fled for a few months, to avoid prosecution in Texas, for embezzling money from the bank where he worked. The term—which originally referred to a politically unstable country run by a dictator and his cronies, with an economy dependent on a single product—took on a life of its own. Over the past century, “banana republic” has evolved to mean any country (with or without bananas) that has a ruthless, corrupt, or just plain loopy leader who relies on the military and destroys state institutions in an egomaniacal quest for prolonged power. I’ve covered plenty of them, including Idi Amin’s Uganda, in the nineteen-seventies, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, in the nineteen-eighties, and Carlos Menem’s Argentina, in the nineteen-nineties.

During the heated Presidential campaign of 2016, the term made its way into mainstream American politics, often glibly. President Trump invoked it in October, 2016. “This election will determine whether we remain a free country in the truest sense of the word or we become a corrupt banana republic controlled by large donors and foreign governments,” he told a cheering crowd in Florida. After the second Presidential debate, in October, Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, countered, “Donald Trump thinks that the Presidency is like some banana republic dictatorship where you can lock up your political opponents.” The phrase has become an undercurrent in the national political debate ever since.

Over the past week, however, the President’s response to the escalating protests over the killing of George Floyd has deepened the debate about what is happening to America. Read on....

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The New Yorker

 Why Trump Will Never Win 
His New Cold War with China
By Robin Wright

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Nixon Presidential Library, a nine-acre compound in Yorba Linda, California, which was partially reopened, amid the pandemic, just for the occasion. Pompeo placed a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers at Richard Nixon’s grave. He toured the museum, where he was photographed at an exhibit featuring life-size statues of Nixon reaching out to shake the hand of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, during that historic first visit by an American President to China, in 1972. After his tour, Pompeo walked to a dais overlooking the parking lot—where folding chairs for a small audience were set up six feet apart, in spaces normally reserved for tourist buses—and angrily declared that Nixon’s outreach to China a half century ago had utterly failed. He called on allies to create a new nato-like coalition to confront the People’s Republic and stopped just short of calling for regime change. Basically, he declared a new Cold War. Read on....

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The New Yorker

 Trump’s Impeachment Revenge: Vindman Is Bullied Into Retiring

By Robin Wright 
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, in full-dress Army uniform and with a Purple Heart pinned to his chest, ended his opening statement during the impeachment hearings on President Trump last fall by addressing his father. “Dad, my sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision, forty years ago, to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America, in search of a better life for our family,” he said. “Do not worry—I will be fine for telling the truth.” It was one of the most memorable moments in the historic hearings. With only the family’s suitcases and seven hundred and fifty dollars to his name, Vindman’s father had brought his three young sons and their grandmother to the United States in 1979, shortly after his wife died. All three Vindman boys ended up serving in the U.S. military, out of a “deep sense of gratitude,” as Vindman testified. Over the next four decades, Vindman amassed impeccable credentials: a Harvard degree, a dozen medals for military valor, diplomatic posts at the U.S. Embassies in Russia and Ukraine, and positions as a Russia specialist for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and at the National Security Council. Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, were even featured in a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.
Read on....

Friday, July 3, 2020

The New Yorker

 To the World, We’re Now America the Racist and Pitiful

By Robin Wright

The real saga of the Statue of Liberty—the symbolic face of America around the world, and the backdrop of New York’s dazzling Fourth of July fireworks show—is an obscure piece of U.S. history. It had nothing to do with immigration. The telltale clue is the chain under Lady Liberty’s feet: she is stomping on it. “In the early sketches, she was also holding chains in her hand,” Edward Berenson, a professor of history at New York University, told me last week. The shackles were later replaced with a tablet noting the date of America’s independence. But the shattered chain under her feet remained.

The statue was the brainchild of Edouard de Laboulaye, a prominent French expert on the U.S. Constitution who also headed the French Anti-Slavery Society. After the Civil War, in 1865, he wanted to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S., enshrined in the new Thirteenth Amendment, which, in theory, reaffirmed the ideals of freedom—this time for all people—first embodied in the Declaration of Independence. One has to wonder what Laboulaye would think of America today, amid one of the country’s gravest periods of racial turmoil since the Civil War. 

On the eve of America’s anniversary—our two hundred and forty-fourth—much of the world believes that the country is racist, battered, and bruised. “Europe has long been suspicious—even jealous—of the way America has been able to pursue national wealth and power despite its deep social inequities,” Robin Niblett, the director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, in London, told me. “When you take the Acela and pass through the poorest areas of Baltimore, you can’t believe you’re looking at part of the United States. There’s always been this sense of an underlying flaw in the U.S. system that it was getting away with—that somehow America was keeping just one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.” Read on...

Monday, June 15, 2020

The New Yorker

Trump’s Vacuous West Point Address and the Revolt Against It

By Robin Wright
President Trump has enraged the U.S. military—from top to bottom. On June 11th, an angry and mournful letter signed by hundreds of graduates of West Point—spanning from the Class of 1948 to the Class of 2019—was posted on Medium. It addressed the Class of 2020. It cited the current “tumultuous time” in America: more than a hundred thousand deaths from a new disease with no known cure, forty million newly unemployed people, and a nation “hurting from racial, social and human injustice” after the murder of George Floyd. “Desperation, fear, anxiety, anger and helplessness are the daily existence for too many Americans,” the signatories wrote. They warned bluntly of leaders who “betray public faith through deceitful rhetoric, quibbling, or the appearance of unethical behavior.” They reminded students of the cadet honor code, which dictates not to “lie, cheat, or steal,” and not to tolerate those who do. Without naming names, they cited their fellow-graduates who are now in senior government positions and failing to uphold their oath of office. (The Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, and the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, both graduated in the West Point Class of 1986.) They wrote that their appeal “is not about party; it is about principle.” And, after welcoming the newest class to the Army tradition of the “Long Gray Line,” they concluded, “Our lifetime commitment is to the enduring responsibility expressed in the Cadet Prayer: ‘to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.’ ” Read on...

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The New Yorker

The Secret Project That Led to Black Lives Matter Murals Coast to Coast

by Robin Wright

This past Thursday, at 6 p.m.Keyonna Jones received an unexpected call from a fellow-artist, about a secret project starting in just a few hours. Was Jones available? The mother of two kids under ten, Jones scrambled to find child care. At eight o’clock, she joined a Zoom call; the lead artist explained that Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., had commissioned eight artists to paint a mural of fifty-foot-high letters spelling out “Black Lives Matter” across two blocks of the street leading to the White House. “This needed to be perfect,” Jones, the executive director of the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center, told me. The group plotted how to make the mural—in a bold shade of yellow—where to get supplies, and the logistics of finishing by midday. Several were nervous about the political consequences. “Some were unsure of the possible backlash—if it was a political play between the mayor and President Trump. They didn’t know if the mayor would back them up if something happened, or if President Trump would retaliate,” Jones recalled. Four days earlier, federal and local law-enforcement officials had used flash grenades, chemical spray, and smoke to drive hundreds of mostly peaceful protesters out of the area around the White House so Trump could walk to St. John’s Church and wave a Bible, briefly, in front of photographers. The mural was supposed to finish in front of the church. “In the Zoom call, it got a little uncomfortable,” Jones, who is African-American, recalled. The artists agreed that they would participate only if they could remain anonymous. Jones was the only member of the group who would talk to me on the record. Read on...

Monday, June 1, 2020

The New Yorker

 Fury at America and Its Values Spreads Globally
By Robin Wright 
America is on the defensive worldwide over the murder of George Floyd and all that the killing implies about race, values, and leadership—not to mention common decency—in the United States. On Sunday, thousands defied a government lockdown in Britain to march through the streets of London—from the famed Trafalgar Square, past the Houses of Parliament, along and across the River Thames, to the U.S. Embassy—to protest the murder of an unarmed black man by white police in Minneapolis, four thousand miles away. The coronavirus pandemic—and its risks—be damned. “The death of George Floyd has rightly ignited fury and anguish not just in the USA but around the world,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted. “No country, city, police force or institution can be complacent about racism and the impact this has.” He also warned about the dangers of infection from covid-19 at crowded protests. “Lockdown has not been lifted,” he tweeted. “The virus is still out there.” The protest nonetheless went on for hours, including a sit-in in front of the Embassy. Homemade cardboard signs read “White silence is violence” and “Do I matter only after death? #GeorgeFloyd.” Hundreds more turned out in northern Manchester, and more still in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, around its historic castle, to protest racism in America. Three more protests—in a country that is America’s closest ally—are planned over the next week. Read on...

Monday, May 18, 2020

The New Yorker

 Some Zoos, and Some of Their Animals, May Not Survive the Pandemic

By Robin Wright

In late March, an elegant four-year-old tiger named Nadia, at the Bronx Zoo, developed a dry cough and lost her appetite. The zoo had been closed for eleven days because of the coronavirus pandemic, and no employee had symptoms of the new coronavirus sweeping across New York. Out of an abundance of caution, the veterinary staff tested Nadia in April, as her problems persisted. It was not a simple swab. The zoo had to anesthetize the two-hundred-pound cat and take samples from her nose, throat, and respiratory tract, then ship them off to veterinary labs at Cornell University and the University of Illinois. Nadia is also no ordinary tiger. Malayan tigers are among the world’s most endangered animals; with fewer than two hundred and fifty left in the wild, they are threatened with extinction because of human poaching and loss of habitat. Nadia was born at the Bronx Zoo, as part of its Malayan-tiger breeding program. Her covid-19 test came back positive. By the end of April, seven other big cats—four more tigers, in addition to three lions who live in a separate exhibit—also tested positive, through samples of their feces. The zoo concluded that they had all been exposed to a human, probably a zoo employee, who was asymptomatic. The news about Nadia stunned staff at more than two hundred accredited U.S. zoos (not including animal “exhibitors,” like Joe Exotic, of “Tiger King” fame) and more than ten thousand zoos around the world. Within twenty-four hours, many introduced stricter handling protocols, more protective gear, and social distancing between humans and zoo animals—not just tigers but also other animals now believed to be vulnerable to covid-19, from great apes to ferrets and even skunks.

But Nadia’s test result six weeks ago was only the beginning of an unprecedented series of crises—some existential—faced by zoological parks dedicated to the study and survival of thousands of the Earth’s other animal species. Unlike entertainment centers, movie theatres, or sports stadiums, zoos can’t simply shut their doors or tell staff to work from home. Zoos still have to feed and care for animals—nearly a million, from six thousand species (a thousand of them endangered or threatened) in the United States alone—at a time in which revenues have plummeted to nothing. Read on....

Friday, May 8, 2020

The New Yorker

Can the Middle East Recover from the Coronavirus and Collapsing Oil Prices?

By Robin Wright

A year ago, Iran marked its National Army Day with a flashy display of its military might. As new tensions flared with the Trump Administration, tanks and long-range missiles loaded on flatbed trucks rolled through the streets of Tehran. Neat formations of troops showcased the Army’s diversity—ethnic Turkmen wore fuzzy white-fur hats and maroon robes, and tribal Arabs were in brown capes with black-and-white checkered headdresses. Special-forces soldiers in khaki fatigues and crisp berets goose-stepped past President Hassan Rouhani and the Islamic Republic’s top military brass. This year, it was a very different show—and a different message. With more than a hundred thousand confirmed cases of covid-19 in Iran, the Army Day parade featured troops goose-stepping in hazmat suits and face masks, columns of ambulances, flatbed trucks converted into mobile clinics, and military vehicles spewing huge clouds of disinfectant into the air. Members of the Army band performed—six feet apart. The Iranian President skipped the show. “The enemy now is hidden and doctors and nurses are at the frontlines of the battlefield,” he said, in a message to the nation’s military. “Our army is not a symbol of militarism but a manifestation of supporting the nation and upholding its national interests.”

The Middle East, the world’s most volatile region for more than seven decades, has been ravaged over the past two months by twin disasters—the coronavirus pandemic and the historic collapse of global oil prices. Iran was the region’s original epicenter of the coronavirus. But, by Wednesday, seventeen Arab countries, Iran, and Israel reported a total of more than two hundred and twenty thousand cases, with more than nine thousand dead. Read on....