Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 October 2005

Plague Bioterrorism: A Sui-Genocide Bomb

Since 9/11, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the possibility of terrorists deliberately seeding a bacterial or viral plague. No less a pundit than Charles Krauthammer---a columnist noted for steely-eyed realism---has fanned the flames of this fear. In a recent column, he chided the scientists who decoded the genome of the 1918 pandemic flu virus and “rebuilt” it. Their stunning scientific and technical achievement, he argued, was ultimately unwise because the scientists had published the viral genome, giving terrorists a blueprint for a plague weapon.

Krauthammer is not alone in his fear. Two years ago, the United States embarked on a crash program to stockpile vaccine against smallpox, a disease that science has all but eradicated. The reason was fear that terrorists would find and steal the small stores of smallpox virus still kept in research repositories and use it as a plague weapon.

How realistic are these fears? To answer that question, we must consider the consequences of using such a weapon for the terrorists themselves.

The chief characteristic of a plague is communicability. A viral or bacterial disease that is easily transmissible, usually by aerosols, would be a devastating weapon. The very global transportation system that supports our modern economy could spread it around the world in days or weeks. Even in 1918, before the advent of modern air travel, the “Spanish” flu pandemic swept the world in less than a year. Today the spread would be infinitely more rapid.

If a plague can infect the entire world in days or weeks, how would the terrorists protect themselves from it? How would Islamic terrorists, in particular, keep a plague they started from wiping out themselves and their fellow Muslims?

There are only four defenses against a plague: (1) natural immunity; (2) isolation; (3) vaccination; and (4) curative medicine. Religion is learned behavior, not a genetic characteristic. Being a Muslim provides no more or less natural immunity than being a Christian, Jew or atheist. Islamic terrorists might think that the relative industrial and commercial backwardness of their homes would protect them from contact with a worldwide plague, but that hope would be spectacularly false. Capitals and major cities of Muslim lands are as much a part of the modern world as other cites, linked by air, sea and ground transportation with the developed world. Any communicable plague starting in the developed world would quickly find its way to Muslim cities and from there to every Muslim on the planet. Eventually, it would even find its way to isolated desert oases and Osama bin Laden’s mountain redoubt.

To avoid contact with the plague, the terrorists would have to isolate themselves completely from outside contact. So would their leaders. Moreover , they would have to do so for extended periods, at a time when they use human messengers almost exclusively in order to thwart electronic eavesdropping. Such isolation is wildly unrealistic, the more so in wartime conditions and under constant threat of discovery, capture and annihilation. Terrorists depend on a social infrastructure of sympathizers to bring them food, supplies and weaponry and manage their safe houses. The sympathizers would bring the plague home to them.

As for vaccines and cures, who in is best position to invent, manufacture and distribute them? Where are all the most competent and expert centers for disease control, medical scientists, medical laboratories, doctors, and hospitals? Where are the most robust and flexible health-care delivery systems? In the Muslim world or in the developed world? Can folks trained in Madrassas, knowing only the Koran and hiding in safe houses or mountain redoubts, decode a viral genome, create a vaccine or cure, and manufacture and distribute it better than the West?

If Muslim terrorists deliberately started a plague, they would be subjecting their own people to far greater death, suffering and devastation than their “enemies.” A plague created by Islamic terrorists would therefore be a sui-genocide bomb---a highly effective strategy to wipe themselves and their people out, far more than people in developed nations.

If you believe, as some do, that the terrorists we face are “crazy,” then their use of a plague weapon may seem realistic. But there is little evidence that even the most vicious terrorists are that crazy or irrational. They have made their objectives crystal clear: (1) driving “infidels” from their holy lands and eventually from all lands populated primarily by Muslims; (2) “regime change” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Muslim dictatorships; (3) establishing an Islamic “Caliphate” throughout Muslim-occupied lands; and (4), as a corollary to (1) and (3), resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by driving Jews from the region or annihilating them.

While medieval in thrust and morally abhorrent, these goals are internally consistent and have their own terrible logic. Moreover, given the terrorists’ lack of technology, advanced weaponry, industrial infrastructure, and widespread political support, suicide bombing by individual fanatics also may be a logically supportable, if cruel and short-sighted, means of realizing them. But sui-genocide?

Leaders like bin Laden and Zarqawi do not blanch at sending tens and hundreds to their deaths as “martyrs.” But they go to extraordinary effort to spare themselves. They build mountain redoubts. Like Stalin and Saddam, they sleep in a different place almost every night, sometimes several times per night. No doubt they justify this effort by citing their extraordinary value to their “cause. “ Yet by starting a plague on its unpredictable course they would be playing a medical form of Russian roulette. That hardly seems in character.

It is no coincidence that the single instance of suspected Islamic bioterrorism involved anthrax. Anthrax infections are not communicable; they require direct exposure to aerosolized or “weaponized” spores. Unlike a bacterial or viral plague, anthrax is a “short range” weapon. With even rudimentary care and planning, it can be configured so as not to recoil on its creators. A communicable plague is something else entirely.

Of course it makes sense to be prepared. Having some smallpox vaccine on hand is not a bad thing. It might protect us from an accidental release of stored virus or a natural re-emergence of that particular plague from some hidden biological reservoir. Similarly, making a vaccine or curative antidote to the newly resurrected 1918 flu is not a bad research project. Among other things, it might teach us something about the next flu pandemic.

But plagues are not realistic terror weapons. They are too unpredictable, and they can terrorize their creators more than the victims, especially if their creators are Islamic extremists with no biotech training or infrastructure.

Furthermore, plagues do not fit the character profile of Islamic terrorists. Although experimenting at times with more subtle weapons, these terrorists have returned to explosions again and again. They are extremists in every sense of the word. They see the world as black and white---believer and infidel---and they like things that go “bang.”

Explosions fit their world view perfectly. Unlike chem and bio weapons, explosions are not subtle. They provide instantaneous results. They promise instant martyrdom to perpetrators. They are highly visible. They attract good television coverage, which in turn recruits more “martyrs” to the cause. And terrorists can delude themselves that most of their victims do not suffer, but are instantly dispatched. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, explosions kill with a bang, not a whimper. Terrorists like that.

The granddaddy of all bangs is a nuclear explosion. It is therefore the terrorists’ holy grail. Like other bombs, nuclear ones are short-range weapons. With careful planning and a kitchen timer, even the bomb planter can escape. Radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion in the United States or Europe is unlikely to reach Muslim lands. The terrorists are smart enough to know this.

Of course we should continue to make every effort to ward off the next naturally evolving flu pandemic. But plague bioterrorism, while a good subject for science fiction, is a very low probability threat. We should keep our eye on the ball of the chief threat: nuclear terrorism.

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16 October 2005

An Open Letter to Colin Powell

Dear Secretary Powell:

Your country needs you. No doubt you’ve heard that call before, perhaps long ago when you first joined the ROTC. But it has never before rung as true as it does today.

President Bush is in way over his head. His emotional IQ may make him a genius, but his analytical IQ---the type that gets things done---is inadequate. He can’t win the war in Iraq and he can’t see how to withdraw. He can’t balance the budget. He can’t protect us from a simple storm---something we Americans have always done superbly. He won’t even cut his vacation short to attend to vital business. How can he win the War on Terrorists, avert a global avian flu pandemic, reduce global warming (which may be the cause of stronger hurricanes), or make our schools and industries competitive again? His two chief advisors are vain, tired old men out of ideas and in deep water that long ago swamped their competence.

As we Americans look past the next three awful lame-duck years, our only hope for good leadership is you. Look at the Democrats first. John Kerry never had any ideas, is obsessed with revenge against Bush, and is finished as a national figure. Howard Dean is a polemical fund raiser, not a leader. John Edwards is a good, honest trial lawyer, with no executive experience, still learning about politics and government. Hillary Clinton has no ideas or program beyond her ambition to be the first female President. Barack Obama, while promising, is far too young and inexperienced. Bill Richardson seems sensible, but we’ve had two recent presidents who were governors with no national experience. It seems time for someone who has some.

Now look at the Republican side. Are things much better there? Bill Frist is Hillary’s counterpart: all ambition, no substance. Chuck Hagel has little to recommend him but his well-justified skepticism of the Bush Administration’s war planning. John McCain would be a credible candidate, but he also lacks executive experience. Not a one ever served in the Cabinet.

You’ve got three decades of experience leading the military---the only institution in our society that everyone agrees still works. The military is now in great demand. It fights our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It rescues our people and their property after disasters like Katrina and Rita. It saves lives in foreign disasters like the Sumatran tsunami and the earthquake in Kashmir, earning us invaluable international good will. Now the President wants it to protect us against an avian flu pandemic. The military bears all these burdens because it is one of the few institutions of government that we can still rely on to get things done.

You worked in the military for thirty years, rising to the highest level. You’ve got contacts and skills none of the wannabes can dream of. You know how to reach down inside a huge bureaucracy and find and promote the best and the brightest. (I’ve watched your appointments in the State Department, and, so far as I can tell, there wasn’t a Michael Brown or Tommy Franks among them.) You know how to pick doers and winners, and you’re not afraid to work with people who might be smarter than yourself. With you in the White House we could count on competent and capable leadership that knows what it is doing.

Most of our presidential wannabes are firmly mired in the national mud-wrestling contest that passes for the United States Congress. You stand above the fray. You have an innate knack for diplomacy. With the possible exception of John McCain, you may be the only figure of national stature who can say the word “bipartisan” and not evoke peals of derision. Your country needs your soft voice and unbiased common sense.

Five years ago, you could bow out, pleading inexperience. Then you could credibly say you were “just” a soldier. But that seems a lifetime ago. We may need a soldier now. And you’ve served four years in the Cabinet, as Secretary of State. That gives you four years more of national executive experience than any of the wannabes. (That’s two-thirds the length of George Bush’s entire experience in elective office when he entered the White House!) You’ve met the world’s leaders and villains face to face, you know them, and you’ve worked with them.

We saw you as a diplomat. We saw you struggle to achieve success and almost make it, only to have the rug pulled out from under you, time after time, by the President or your rivals in the Administration. Still you achieved minor successes, loyally supporting mistaken policies in which you did not believe and against which you had rightly cautioned. Can anyone doubt what diplomatic miracles you might perform in the service of your own good policies?

On the most important international issues of the day, you were right all along. You pronounced the Powell Doctrine. Avoid foreign military adventures, you advised, but if you go, take overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy. If you had been in the White House, we might not have invaded Iraq. If you had decided to go, you would have taken 300,000 troops, stopped the looting, picked up all that loose ordnance, and crushed the insurgency before it began. We’d have rebuilt Iraq’s infrastructure, established a stable government, and been on our way home long ago.

You wanted to lean a bit on Ariel Sharon to make peace. You were undermined at home, but you were right. Sharon’s short-sighted policies have only postponed another inevitable explosion, despite Arafat’s death. Some day soon, free people everywhere will begin to compare his West Bank Wall with the now-vanished Berlin Wall, and they won’t like the comparison. Even now, Muslims worldwide hate us for what they see as our partiality.

Maybe you’d rather be right than President, but now you can be both. There is no one on the scene with anything close to your credentials, your consistent record of correct calls on difficult issues, or your personal skill. If it were simply a matter of resumes, no one would even bother to interview the other candidates. Democrats and independents will vote for you in droves.

Of course, you’ve got to win the Republican nomination first. But there are benefits there, too. Once upon a time, the word “conservative” had a good and noble meaning. It didn’t mean radical reformer. It didn’t mean polemical divider. It didn’t mean using religion as a club to beat up gays, judges, and pro-choice women. It didn’t mean hobbling leading-edge medical research. And it certainly didn’t mean mounting ambitious foreign military adventures, far less with too few troops to do the job.

Instead, the word “conservative” once stood for the old, solid American virtues. It meant common sense, caution, humility, reason, thrift, selfless public service, and fiscal responsibility. It meant conserving the good that you have, in troops, in other personnel, in institutions, in the environment, in money and in virtue. You can restore that meaning, for you embody all those qualities. And I have to believe there are lots of Republicans who still value them, else we are lost.

There are few times in our nation’s history when we’ve needed good leadership more than today. We had Washington for our Revolution, Lincoln for the Civil War, and FDR for the Big One. Can anyone seriously believe that the President is in the same league, or that any of the wannabes measures up? Next to you, there is only a parade of midgets.

The future does not look rosy. Iraq may be sliding into civil war. Natural disasters are increasing in numbers and severity worldwide, and global warming may be partly responsible. An avian flu pandemic threatens. The American consumer and Chinese industry, which have kept the recession from becoming a worldwide depression, are running out of steam. If the global economy somehow picks up, there will be shortages of oil and other commodities and massive inflation. Our national energy policy is a national disgrace. Our national savings rate is negative, and our twin deficits in payments and the budget are spiraling out of control. Pretty soon China and Japan will own most of our debt, and they may decide to foreclose. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Iran threatens to get them. And Al Qaeda is metastasizing worldwide, using Iraq as a training camp and a seemingly inexhaustible source of explosives.

The next presidential term will be no time for on-the-job training of a national leader. The survival of our nation---or at least one of our major cities---may depend on having a President “ready to roll” right after the inauguration. (There is considerable evidence that President Bush’s own on-the-job training was a contributing factor in failing to avert September 11.) None of our wannabes is prepared to do so or has anything like your experience or skill.

So please, please take the plunge now. Announce your candidacy early. Give us some hope for experienced good leadership at least around the corner. You’ve already served and sacrificed more than anyone could ask. You could retire and still deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. But we have nowhere else to turn, and you have never shrunk from a challenge.

If you announce now, the sorry list of wannabes will cull itself, and our national debates will grow less raucous and more sensible. Even from the sidelines, you will be able to decrease the heat, increase the light, and begin to solve problems. The nation will follow you because you are the best we’ve got. So please say those magic words, “I volunteer,” just as you did so long ago. And please say them soon.

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14 October 2005

Harriet Miers: Thinking Like Mush

For those of us too busy to do our own original research (which is most of us), New York Times Columnist David Brooks has done a great service. He’s collected samples of Harriet Miers’ writing when she was president of the Texas Bar Association. The results are appalling. Miers’ writing would quickly flunk her out of almost any self-respecting graduate or professional school. Yet she may be headed for the Supreme Court.

Brooks described Miers’ writing as a “relentless march of vapid abstractions.” That description is apt, but charitable. Most professionals would describe her writing more simply as the result of “thinking like mush.”

Thinking like mush does have its uses. Far too many lawyers and public servants do it, for it glosses over disputes and differences. Sometimes mush allows leaders to forge consensus or agreement when none appears possible. All can agree on comforting platitudes that say nothing but evoke a vague, general assent.

The President is a master at thinking and speaking mush. Throughout his public life, he has exploited that skill to attract popular support. Mush hides the hard edges of his intentions and the costs and sacrifice that his policies demand. You’re never quite sure what his vaguely comforting platitudes mean, but they all seem beneficent or at least harmless, whatever your position on the political spectrum. Until recently, his strategy of mouthing mush has been highly successful. The nation slept while Iraq burned.

Yet mush has three disadvantages. First, the consensus it forges is often illusory. Mushy thinking and mushy speaking do not resolve differences; they hide them. When the time comes to act, the mushy “consensus” falls apart. That’s exactly what’s happening in President Bush’s second term. It’s why nearly two-thirds of the American people now think our collective future is spinning out of control. They don’t like how the President has translated his vaguely comforting mushy platitudes into action.

The second disadvantage of thinking like mush appears in action itself. Folks who think mushily seldom act competently. Take Michael Brown, for example. He came on TV a couple of days before Katrina hit New Orleans. After listening to him for just two minutes, I concluded he could not do the job. Why? Because he thought and spoke like mush, just as Harriet Miers writes. Mouthing comforting PR platitudes is not the same skill as getting rescue, food, medicine and shelter quickly and efficiently into the hands of people who need it. The whole nation learned the difference, to its dismay, in Katrina’s aftermath. Now people are beginning to rethink the other comforting platitudes mouthed by the President and Don Rumsfeld.

The third disadvantage of mush is that mush is not clear. This point bears directly on Miers’ work. Some of the greatest legal minds in our nation’s history have insisted that the law be clear enough for ordinary people to understand it. When and if Harriet Miers becomes a justice on the Supreme Court, she will write opinions that will be “the law.” If she writes mush, as she has in the past, no one will know what the law is.

That result will have two consequences. First, the “hot button” issues of our day will not be resolved. They will be pushed down to the lower courts, where they will be decided only temporarily and on a regional basis. Maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe the only way we can reach any semblance of consensus on our “hot button” issues is to resolve them on a regional basis---one rule for San Francisco and New York City, another for Dallas and Dubuque. Then maybe we can get on with the real issues of our time, such as winning the War against Terrorists, averting the next terrorist attack (which could be nuclear), surviving the next flu pandemic, recovering from the exploding spate of natural disasters (some probably caused by global warming) and repairing our dysfunctional educational system so our children can compete with their counterparts in India, Japan, China and the “tigers” of East Asia.

A second consequence of mush in the Supreme Court, however, is not so promising. Mushy law gives the Executive free reign. When the rules are unclear, the advantage goes to the actor, who can do what he pleases and later justify his actions as consistent with mushy rules. Mushy law increases Executive power.

It is here that the Miers’ appointment deserves the hardest look. We know very little about Harriet Miers, but we do know three things. First, she is very close to President Bush. In fact, she thinks him one of the smartest men she ever met. Second, the “public service” part of her career has been almost entirely in the Executive branch. She has had no substantial reported experience in the legislative or judicial branches of government. (Miers did serve for less than two years on the Dallas City Council. In contrast, Justice O'Connor served nearly five years in the Arizona State Senate, attaining the position of majority leader.) Finally, her most recent career, with President Bush, has been an extended exercise in loyalty and secrecy for the benefit of an increasingly imperial presidency. These facts suggest that a Justice Harriet Miers would vote predictably and consistently to confirm and increase the power of the Executive, certainly while President Bush is in office, and probably thereafter as well.

Would that be a good thing? Our deeply divided, disciplineless, self-indulgent and increasingly ignorant and corrupt society is in trouble. In the next few years we can look forward to greater risks of terror, a flu pandemic, natural disasters, inflation and global economic instability. Maybe we need a strong leader to survive, let alone to prosper, through what may lie ahead.

But the Founders of our nation did not create checks and balances for nothing. When Ben Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, reporters asked him what kind of government it had proposed. “A Republic, if you can keep it,” he replied. There is no problem keeping our Republic in times of peace, quiet and prosperity. The crunch comes in times of crisis, like the present and our probable immediate future.

The Supreme Court has no army, no independent source of funds. In the end, the only bulwark of its power and our liberties is the strength of the words that it writes. In times of crises, those words must draw clear lines between Executive action that secures our future and action that subverts our liberties and our Republic. If anyone thinks Harriet Miers is up to that job, let her read the quotes from Miers’ writing in David Brooks’ column.

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