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Are Americans Overreacting to the Ebola Virus?

The Buzz

Compared with the havoc wreaked by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the virus thus far has only led to three confirmed cases in the United States. The fear and anxiety however has spread much faster. Earlier this month, seventy-five airplane-cabin cleaners at LaGuardia Airport walked off their jobs partly due to concerns about the risk of exposure to the virus. Last week, a woman who vomitted in the Pentagon parking lot triggered a health scare that forced the temporary shutdown of the building entrance and the setup of a quarantine and decontamination tent in front of the hospital where she was admitted—and later found not to have Ebola. Also last week, a Texas health worker who was suspected of being exposed to the first Ebola case in the United States was isolated on a cruise ship for nineteen days despite showing no symptoms of the disease. Ultimately, her blood test came back negative. In a bizarre move, parents pulled their kids out of a Mississippi school because of a concern that the principal who recently visited Zambia (which is 3,000 miles away from the affected West African countries) might spread the virus. U.S. President Barack Obama spoke against the “hysteria or fear” associated with the virus, and yet indicated his willingness to implement a travel ban from Africa and appoint an anti-Ebola czar.

The American response to the looming Ebola outbreak is reminiscent of the Chinese response to the 2003 SARS outbreak. In the Chinese case, amidst the governmental information clampdown and a fatal period of hesitation, there was widespread speculation and rumor-mongering. Residents in Guangdong province (the SARS ground zero) cleared pharmacy shelves of antibiotics and flu medication. In some cities, even vinegar, believed to be a disinfectant, was sold out. The panic spread quickly to other provinces. Farmers set off firecrackers in the belief that it would frighten off SARS. At the height of the epidemic in Beijing, a sea of people in white masks—most of them scared migrant workers and university students—flocked to train and bus stations and airports in an effort to flee the city. By late April, an estimated one million people (around 10 percent of the population), had fled the city for other parts of China. They would soon find themselves persona non grata even in their hometowns. In the countryside, worried villagers set up roadblocks to keep away people from Beijing. A series of riots against quarantine centers were also reported in May.

But Ebola is not SARS. For one thing, Ebola is not as contagious as SARS. The average number of people that a sick person will infect is one to two for Ebola, compared to two to five for SARS. While SARS can spread through infected droplets, Ebola is transmitted only through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is sick. Unlike SARS, which enables an asymptomatic person to transmit the virus, Ebola only becomes contagious when infected people are experiencing symptoms. These key differences increase the possibility of effectively implementing restrictive interventions such as social distancing, travel restrictions, quarantine, and case isolation for Ebola.

That being said, Ebola is more virulent than SARS. The average case fatality rate for Ebola is around 50 percent, much higher than SARS (9.6 percent). Ebola was first reported as early as 1976 but, as my colleague Laurie Garrett noted, there are still myths surrounding the virus, including its very nature, the risk it poses, and the effective means of preventing transmission. A new study released last week suggests that Ebola patients could still be contagious after three-week quarantine (the period recommended by the World Health Organization). The mishandling of the Ebola crisis by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (which has been consistently ranked the most trusted federal agency) further erodes public confidence in the U.S. disease surveillance and response capacity. Indeed, the widespread witnessing of healthcare workers who were unable to protect themselves from infection perpetuated a highly exaggerated sense of public risk. In the words of Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction at Harvard University, when dealing with an unfamiliar disease, “We respond to the likelihood of death in the event the disease is contracted, rather than the compound probability of contracting the disease and succumbing to its effects.”

Such “dreaded risks” generate fear and panic at a level that is disproportionate to the disease-caused morbidity and mortality. Indeed, major epidemics have historically produced significant worry, anxiety, fear, panic, and even mass hysteria in the affected countries. The fear and panic could place further constraints on government capacity to tackle the public health emergency. Worse, the associated social distancing measures, in conjunction with the government anti-Ebola interventions, could have substantial negative economic impacts in the United States. It is estimated that adverse demand shock caused by SARS cost China 0.5 percent of its GDP in 2003. Americans may be overreacting to the threat of Ebola, but that overreaction is understandable. When planning further Ebola control measures, the Obama administration has to seriously take this fear factor into account.

The following article first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

TopicsEbola RegionsUnited States

The Complexity of Russia

The Buzz

 “Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Putin.”

Those words, often articulated to me by Russians during a very recent trip across Russia on the Trans- Siberian railroad, underscore a more nuanced perspective on the Russian president than might be expected given his current high popularity ratings. Support for the annexation of Crimea is virtually universal with little understanding or appreciation that in so doing, Russia has violated international commitments and undone post- Cold War security structures in Europe. There is, however, no support for open warfare with Ukraine and young people are uneasy the current sanctions will jeopardize future career and job prospects.

My public opinion sampling on this trip was neither scientific nor comprehensive but it was geographically broad (the cities of Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Yekatarinburg, Kazan and Moscow) and included varied age groups and backgrounds. For someone with two previous assignments to the US Embassy in Moscow, the openness of my interlocutors and the absence of anti-US sentiment despite the official propaganda were striking.

Russia clearly remains a land of contradictions. All the cities visited seemed to be thriving with new buildings and construction, traffic jams on the order of Washington DC, and elegant shops and broad pedestrian malls. People were well dressed and the activity level was high. Being a major stopping point on the Trans -Siberian clearly has advantages.

Evidence of more independent thinking was also evident. Yekatarinburg, which straddles Europe and Asia, has a monument to some 40,000 victims of NKVD repression in 1937-38 and a striking statue of a soldier grieving over his lost comrades in the Afghanistan war. This monument supposedly was forced on city leaders by Afghan vets who would not be deterred.  A huge Lenin statue in the middle of the city is referred to by young people as the guy pointing to the pedestrian shopping street. In Kazan, a young waitress vehemently expressed her opposition to Putin’s “muscular” steps and the annexation of Crimea, which she said was shared by friends. And church leaders in a small town near Ulan Ude made a point of thanking our group for coming to Russia “despite the political difficulties.”

The vast countryside is a different story. The unending vista from the train of small villages consisting of wooden huts without paved roads, no running water and toilets but with electricity presents almost a timeless image of Russia. Huge piles of chopped wood and the harvesting of cabbages, potatoes and carrots reminded that Siberian winter was very close.  It looked as if most young people had deserted the villages and indeed we were told that the countryside is rapidly losing young people.

All interlocutors expressed great pride in their cities and many criticized Moscow for being aloof. Several complained that Siberian assets are enriching Moscow with not enough being returned to Siberia and that wages in Siberian cities are 30 percent lower than in Moscow.  Oligarchs were criticized for sending their children abroad to be educated.

Perhaps of most interest were viewpoints expressed about Putin, Crimea and Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was almost universally supported. A resident of Irkutsk said Putin had redressed the stupidity and mistakes of the Bolsheviks which explains his popularity. A resident of Novosibirsk said that 3000 refugees from Donetsk were being resettled there and given Russian passports. We “must help our own” she emphasized.

Sanctions were being only slightly felt with an increase in food prices and older individuals pointed to Russians’ ability to endure hardships and the availability of substitute products from Belarus and Argentina. Others pointed out the impact is yet to be felt as Russians were now benefitting from the fall harvest. The situation next spring would be different.

The support, however, was not without limits. No one wanted to see Russia in a war with Ukraine. Many were concerned that Russia was becoming isolated and younger people specifically were uneasy about their careers and job prospects if Russia continued to cut itself off.  Many said they recognized they were not being told the truth by their government and were reading between the lines as in Soviet days. Similar charges of non-reliability, however, were levelled against the Western press.

Most concerning was the lack of understanding and acknowledgment that Russia had violated international commitments by its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The viewpoint rather is that Crimea is “ours” and that a wrong had finally been redressed.

What then is the bottom line? Russia is an enormous and diverse country with individuals enjoying personal freedoms unprecedented in Russian history. It is not the USSR. Putin’s authoritarianism and Moscow, however, dominate the political landscape. Moscow has numerous security forces on display, many signs proclaiming the sanctions will be overcome, and we had a direct reminder of the current chilly atmosphere at a main gate to the Kremlin. A security guard noted that one member of our group was wearing a shirt from Alaska and asked him if he lived there. The American said no but that he had visited there.  The Russian officer then seriously  responded that “Alaska will soon be ours again.”

Putin currently enjoys broad popularity but this has limits as evidenced by the subterfuges employed in Ukraine to cover up direct Russian involvement. Sanctions may not force Putin’s hand over the short term but growing public awareness and understanding that Russia is becoming a pariah state as a result of its actions and not some Western plot against it could yet become a force to be reckoned with.

Kenneth S. Yalowitz is a former US Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia and currently a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsRussia RegionsRussia

The GOP Must Stop Legal Birthright

The Buzz

The Chicago Department of Public Health, like its counterparts in all major cities, is quite open about the availability of taxpayer-funded care for pregnant women who are in the country illegally. Hospitals cannot ask about a patient’s immigration status, or even for a social security number. Pregnant women are eligible for Medicaid, the State of Illinois will not report their presence to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and best of all, their newborn children are considered American citizens. For poor pregnant women from most of the world, this is like winning the lottery. For the children, birthright citizenship means a lifetime of publicly funded benefits, and at age eighteen, the right to sponsor their parents for lawful permanent residency.

It is estimated that up to 400,000 babies are born in this country each year to mothers here illegally. In some Texas hospitals, they account for 70 percent of births. This is the “birth tourism” industry—the result of our peculiar policy of “birthright citizenship.” Anyone born on U.S. soil (or abroad, if to parents who are citizens) is a citizen, regardless of the legal statuses of their parents. Many other countries have abandoned it, including the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia. The most bizarre aspect of this law is that Congress has never passed it, and the country was never allowed to weigh in on the issue. It has simply evolved from an 1898 Supreme Court decision (U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark) concerning a lawful permanent resident. To this day, there has never been a statute or court decision providing for birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, and here I hope to show we can and should pass a law to end it.

In the 1850s, the Supreme Court had maintained that blacks were not citizens (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857), which had to be addressed after the Civil War. Congress realized this could not simply be undone by a law. The Constitution had to be amended to overturn the decision. The amendment was written broadly: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” [Emphasis added]. But what did the italicized clause mean?

The congressional debate makes it quite clear that the Senate sponsor of the Amendment, Lyman Trumbull (R-IL), did not believe it would apply to foreigners, unless they had renounced their ties to their home nations. When asked what the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” meant, he answered, “not owing allegiance to anybody else.” He believed the amendment would grant citizenship to the children of Chinese immigrants living in California.

Did he mean to create birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants? I don’t think so, though the question was never brought up. There was no illegal-alien problem at the time. The Chinese Trumbull was referring to had come to the United States legally and settled in the West, particularly California. We had de facto open borders until 1875, and immigrants were welcome, especially if they would provide cheap labor in the mines and railroads. Trumbull was distinguishing legal permanent immigrants from visitors intending to return home. The latter group still owed allegiance to their native countries. So in his view, citizenship was a consensual act.      

The 1866 Civil Rights Act, passed at the same time to crack down on the Ku Klux Klan, provided that people born in the country “and not subject to any foreign power” rather than “subject to the jurisdiction thereof, ” were citizens. I do not know why that phrase, which plainly excludes illegal immigrants, was not used in the amendment. But no historian or court has ever concluded the amendment meant something different. If we accept that premise, that “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” means not “subject to any foreign power” then the Supreme Court made an historic blunder in its famous Wong Kim Ark decision. By a 5-2 vote, it decided that “subject to the jurisdiction” meant everyone on U.S. soil, except foreign troops and ambassadors. It did so in deciding whether the son of two Chinese immigrants, who had entered the country legally and whose child born in San Francisco, was a U.S. citizen. Under the original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, as enunciated by Trumbull, he was.

But if the Court had followed its two prior decisions interpreting the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” it would not have enunciated such a broad rule and would once again have recognized foreigners are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, unless they are here legally and intend to remain here more or less forever (i.e. citizenship by consent, rather than by place of birth).

Now, more than a century later, are judges required to adhere to Wong Kim Ark’s interpretation of the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof”? The question basically answers itself. If the Court was free to change its interpretation from its earlier decisions in deciding Wong Kim Ark, then why can’t today’s justices do so again? The Supreme Court reverses itself in interpreting the Constitution, most recently in Citizens United three years ago (as to whether corporations have First Amendment rights).

The Court also consistently says the doctrine of stare decisis (following precedent) is at its weakest when interpreting the Constitution. Such errors can have grave and irremediable consequences, since they cannot be undone by Congress. So the Supreme Court should feel free to revisit them. Why not test Wong Kim Ark? The consequences of this decision are costing us billions of dollars a year, and what are its benefits?

And if the Court wanted to take an easier route to reconsidering Wong Kim Ark, it could just focus on the word “jurisdiction.” It has recognized that is one of the most overused and misused words in the legal lexicon. Definitions of jurisdiction in the current Black’s Law Dictionary spill over five pages, and none of them seems to apply to the concept of national power over foreigners as used in the amendment.

How should the Court interpret the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” today? An originalist Court would not be bound by a modern dictionary. It would look at original sources from the ratification period to discern what they intended. Trumbull's statement and that of his colleague Sen. Jacob Howard (who was credited with actually writing the amendment)—that jurisdiction “will not, of course, include foreigners”—would be given considerable weight. As Justice Antonin Scalia and his colleague Bryan A. Garner say in their new book on interpreting legal texts:

“Originalism is the only approach to text that is compatible with democracy. When government-adopted texts are given a new meaning, the law is changed; and changing law, like adopting written law in the first place, is the function of the first two branches of government—elected legislators.”

I also pay very close attention to how legal realists interpret text. Judge Richard Posner considers himself a realist, and he thinks birthright citizenship “makes no sense” and can be abolished by statute.

If the Senate flips to Republican control next month, and the party wants to try its hand at its version of “immigration reform,” then this should be very high on the agenda. It might also require hospitals to collect social security numbers of patients and report the admission of those who don’t have them to the DHS. Those two reforms would end the thriving “birth tourism” industry. It can’t come too soon.

Howard W. Foster is a lawyer specializing in civil RICO cases involving the employment of illegal immigrants.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Joe Ravi/CC by-sa 3.0

TopicsDomestic PoliticsImmigration RegionsUnited States

Climate Change and National Security, Properly Defined

Paul Pillar

The Department of Defense recently released a "Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap" that relates the department's business to global warming and the accompanying climatic changes. The document is welcome in a couple of respects beyond assuring us that the department is properly tending to the various respects in which climate change is affecting its own operations and missions. First, it is a straightforward, unquestioning recognition of the reality and problem of climate change, by the largest executive branch department in the U.S. government. Second, by linking the problem to national security it may help to get the attention of at least some people who have no respect for tree huggers but get a rise out of any use of the U.S. military.

The document relates climate change to national security in two basic ways, as stated in the covering statement by Secretary of Defense Hagel. One is that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that can exacerbate problems that are already well known and which can lead to situations in which overseas involvement of the U.S. military may become an issue. Droughts and other climate-related resource scarcity, for example, may intensify conflicts over resources. The other way, which is what most of the document is about, is that climate change has numerous impacts on the U.S. military's operations, training, and facilities. The heavy concentration of military installations in Virginia's Hampton Roads region, for example, will mean a high impact on the military of the danger that low-lying region faces as one of the U.S. coastal areas most affected by rising sea levels.

These all are important matters, and it is appropriate for the Department of Defense to focus upon them. A document such as this carries the hazard, however, of suggesting that climate change is a national security issue only insofar as as it impinges on matters most traditionally considered to involve national security, especially matters involving the military. That is an artificially narrow conception of national security, consistent perhaps with some ideas of the past but not reflecting the fundamental meaning of national security.

Central to that meaning is the physical well-being of the nation's citizens. That well-being can be endangered by human action either directly, as with an invasion force or a terrorist group bombing people in the United States, or indirectly, as with the multiple physical effects of global warming. Increasing flooding endangers the security of the citizens of Hampton Roads whether there were any military bases in their neighborhood or not.

The security implications of climate change for Americans entail several causal paths, some more direct than others. They include the risk of being killed by extreme weather events, the impairment of food supplies, the loss of forest resources through northward migration of pests, and much else. But the implications do not even have to depend on these sorts of secondary events. The sheer heating up of the homeland matters, too. The health and attractiveness of the United States, and ultimately its strength, depend greatly on the country's fortunate geographic and climatological circumstances. Any impairment of those circumstances is in a real sense a loss of security, too.

As long as we remember those things then it is good to see a document such as the DoD roadmap, which might help to engage some people who have a narrower concept of national security. We need all the help on this we can get, given the continued prominence of American political figures whose views on climate change sound more in tune with the days when Earth was thought to be flat.

Image: Flickr.                       

 

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

Kobani: A Metaphor For the Contradictions Facing The West

The Buzz

Nestled on the Turkish border in northern Syria is the city of Kobani, once inhabited by some 50,000 Kurds. Its Syrian name Ayn al-Arab reflects the stateless nature of the Kurds in Assad’s Syria, where they are denied citizenship and any social rights. For the Kurds of Kobani are trapped in Syria, hemmed in by Turkey and under attack by the Islamic State.

Questioned as to why the IS assault was not being stopped, Admiral John Kirby responded,  “Airstrikes alone, are not going to . . . to save the town of Kobani.” However, the bravery and tenacity of its Kurdish fighters, combined with airstrikes have permitted it to hang on. It also proves that the IS is not omnipotent in the face of spirited resistance. Quite the contrary.

The Kurds will fight to the end--the examples of IS making prisoners dig their own graves give no reason for them to think that surrender is an option. The old, infirm or the young are left behind, unable to run; their fates predictable if the city falls.

The UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has warned of an impending massacre. So desperate is the projected scenario for Kobani that Mistura has even asked Turkey to permit volunteers to cross the border to fight the IS and failing that, to assist the US-led coalition "through whatever means from their own territory".

Turkey however won’t act alone, and if it does it is only in the context of defeating Assad – an invitation for mission creep. Our goals are fundamentally different. Instead, thousands gather on hills on the Turkish side of the border, spectators to the carnage unfolding below.

The Obama plan, for which airstrikes are only the opening act, is seemingly unable to find regional actors to provide the ground forces on which the very success of his plan to degrade and destroy the IS rests. If Turkey with a 400 kilometer long border--now occupied by the IS--will not act, despite the recommendations of its own high command, there is little likelihood that other, smaller regional Arab nations will.

Whether Kobani falls or not it presents a series of contradictions for everyone--whichever camp they belong to.

Days of airstrikes have blunted the IS advance, thanks to Kurdish resistance, but the aerial campaign is under-resourced. It can degrade the IS, but it cannot provide for the persistent air coverage necessary to do more alone. Already choices are being made whether to direct resources towards Kobani, or to the ISIS danger around Bagdhad. Desert Storm was far better resourced.

Of all the nations contributing to the coalition, most will not fly over Syria; the niceties of international law rooted in the Westphalian notion of states’ rights standing in the way of any responsibility to protect (R2P). Under international law, Syria has not explicitly granted permission for coalition airstrikes against the IS but to seek that authority, would politically for some nations, be seen as siding with or abetting that regime. It is difficult to see how saving Kobani from falling and avoiding yet more thousands of refugees could in any way be argued as helping Assad. On the contrary, allowing the IS to destroy the Kurds physically, only does what Assad’s regime was doing materially.

The same Westphalian niceties prevent the direct arming of the Kurds with more sophisticated weaponry, instead directing arms to the so far invisible Iraqi Army.

And that in a nutshell is what the Kobani metaphor reveals. Airpower alone will not stop the IS without fierce resistance on the ground. And in not attacking the IS in its entirety, meaning both in Syria and in Iraq, by coordinated air and ground offensives, an incoherent piecemeal effect will be the result. The Kurds can hold, but are not large enough or well enough equipped to defeat the IS alone. The Iraqi Army seems to exist in name only. The longer we wait, the more difficult the task of destroying the IS will be.

Hope cannot supplant the glaringly obvious and despite US and western reluctance to intervene with ground forces, only with some western troops committed, will regional partners be enticed join us. If we insist on none of our boots on the ground, why would regional partners volunteer?

As in Gulf War One, aims limited to recapturing territory and destroying ISIS strongholds should be the limit of our military aspirations. We should not be drawn into reconstruction or the reconstitution of government and civil society by military means. Regional actors can do that and deal with wider issues like Syria’s Assad after we're gone.

If not, the goal of all this, the rapid destruction of the IS, will somehow be forgotten, as are the people we are trying to protect; bogged down in a lengthy air campaign and the interminable search for willing partners. We will undoubtedly face the spectre of more Kobanis and the thousands more dead and displaced that will impose.

George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, and in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Cyprus and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders.

Howard Coombs is a graduate of the United States Army Command and General Staff College, as well as the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He is currently a professor of military history and war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsKobani RegionsMiddle East

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