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.”