Thursday, July 20

IMAXing US foreign policy issues

The following conversation with "Michael Wright" took place last year shortly after the scope of the disaster from Hurricane Katrina became evident. I think I might have cribbed from the discussion for a couple posts related to Katrina's aftermath but I don't think I published the conversation. Parts of the discussion would leave new readers at sea unless they first boned up on the China Mystery Disease posts. But I’ve spruced up the transcript and publish it now because it touches on so many Pundita themes that it makes a good review.

Michael Wright: Is there anybody [connected with foreign aid and development projects] you don’t see as a crook who hasn’t . . . been caught?

Pundita: It’s nothing personal. It’s that I adhere to the Las Vegas casino manager’s rule when large amounts of money are sloshing around.

MW: They’re all crooks by the fact of walking in the door. You know too many World Bank stories.

P: Well, talk to the World Bank. If you don’t assume that everything on the project right down to the wing nuts will be stolen your oversight mechanisms will be grossly lacking. From there, it’s guaranteed you will be picked clean. You won’t have even a phone so you can ask for replacement parts. They’ll even steal the wall calendar so you can’t report what day you were robbed.

MW: [Laughing] I think -

P: You’re laughing because you think I’m stretching a point.

MW: The problem is that those things happen in other countries; they can’t happen here, not in modern America.

P: Yes. That’s the mindset that has to be overcome. Talk to hotel managers in Las Vegas. Customers will carry out the bathroom fixtures. I don’t mean the towels; I mean they’ll walk off with the plumbing if given the chance.

MW: But would [the "not in this country" mindset] carry so far as to put thousands in harm’s way?

P: Not intentionally but many ‘will’ themselves to overlook the obvious because these kind of things don’t happen in America, as you say - at least, they don’t happen in modern America. That mindset makes people sitting ducks for the law of unintended consequences [as happened with President Bush’s initially slow response to the Katrina disaster].

If you switch to a wide angle lens when studying the situation, you come away with the distinct impression that a very limited set of considerations could have set in motion a wide array of reactions that were greatly out of context to what was going on.

MW: By “wide angle” you mean --

P: Take the mysterious pig disease that struck China last year, which touched off dire speculations it was an epidemic that could mushroom to a pandemic affecting the entire globe. If you took the reports at face value, you’d be examining factors that pertain to disease. But you need to place the reports within the context of China’s political climate and where they are on the development curve.

Once you do that, you’re bringing in many more factors to examine. For example, the state of the pork industry in China, the tremendous importance that pork meat now has in globalized trade, the improvements in disposable income - globally more people can afford to eat more meat - and the dearth of land in many regions that makes pig breeding more feasible than cattle breeding.

So then you look around for a precipitating factor. Did anything happen in the pork industry around the time of the pig disease outbreak that could have touched off a kind of range war in China - a pork producers or pork processors war?

I’m not saying that’s what happened. Yet it’s something you have to look for, when faced with reports of the threat of a global outbreak from what could have been a highly infectious lethal disease - a new strain of lethal disease, no less.

Michael Wright: If you’re in government, the military, you have to make critical lightning fast decisions when there is almost no hard data….

Pundita: Well, there was some hard data. If history is a guide, that’s why John Loftus got the nod from his contacts at CENTCOM and/or the CIA to talk about the scare stories. Something very strange, very ominous, was going on in Sichuan province.

It was a situation that bore close watching and might have required a rapid, draconian response from the US government. Yet there was not enough data to get a handle on what was going on, much less make an official announcement or take overt diplomatic action. The world press quickly picked up on the pig disease outbreak, at least China’s official version, so a warning was put out.

But yes -- megapopulations stuffed together in close proximity in key trade regions and military base sites mean that governments have to be very quick on their feet about even the hint of a highly infectious disease outbreak. You don’t have the luxury of waiting for events to unravel and reveal a clear picture. SARS taught us that.

MW: On the other hand, if you react too quickly or with the wrong response, hundreds of millions [of dollars] are down the tube and entire economies can be plunged into chaos.

P: Exactly.

MW: So [with the pig disease] you were looking at it as a case study: “Welcome to the 21st Century.”

P: Yes, and possibly, “Welcome to the next level of information warfare.” There is some suggestion that whatever was going on in China, elements in the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] seized on events to deliver a scary warning to Japan and the US and even North Korea about their bio-war program. Remember, this situation blew up at a time when the US was engaged in saber rattling and Japan was dropping hints that they were considering re-arming in a big way.

MW: Then again, the pig disease could have been a biowar experiment that got out of the lab. Yet the thing that hit me hardest, as your essays piled up, was that it wasn’t necessarily a disease. It could have been an illness brought on by some kind of poison or toxic substance.

P: We didn’t know what the heck it was and still don’t. All that was known for absolute certain at the time was a biomedical scientist with a vested interest in vaccine development [Henry Niman] had read the worst possible into the Wang Boxun interview and the other anecdotal accounts of the outbreak.

MW: [He saw] a doomsday combination of Ebola virus and a mutation of H5N1.

P: Don’t forget bubonic plague was also in the reported mix! Let’s not neglect Dr. Wong-Wang’s fan club. But getting down to the rock bottom of what was actually known was not easy, which is why I took my readers on that merry chase through data-land.

MW: Niman could be right, though, if Wang was on the level.

P: You bet. So if you’re in government, you can’t afford to take a wait-and-see attitude before arriving at decisions on how to proceed in an early phase of a threat assessment. You have to run all the possible scenarios -

MW: But make sure to use a wide-angle lens.

P: Actually, you’d need IMAX [3D] lenses because you might not necessarily get enough clues by focusing only on the pork industry. China is awash in chemical pollutants from industrial byproducts and industrial accidents. There was no real regulation for decades. The symptoms of the pig disease could match those of poisoning from some types of toxic waste. So you’d need to examine that angle also.

Also, if you’re looking at the pork industry, you have broaden the search to include the stock and commodities market; look for a big stock offering around that time that was somehow connected with China’s pork industry. Look for big short selling of pork belly futures, and so on.

You’d want to look at all the most well known types of scenarios and see if they could somehow connect with the pig disease outbreak. If you stay focused on trying to figure out whether the reported disease is what China’s government says, you’re running in circles. The government provided no medical evidence to back up the strep suis diagnosis they put out, which does not jibe with key reported symptoms, the high death toll, and other factors.

MW: There was the outbreak, and the attempt by China’s government to cover up the outbreak. It was about a month before they officially acknowledged the outbreak, which only fed the rumors, which fed riots and distrust of the central government.

P: It was a textbook situation. Johnson & Johnson faced the situation in the 1960s. Contrary to myth their initial reaction was to downplay the threat from the cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. That decision cost lives. So that’s how they learned. They did an immediate recall of all Tylenol bottles. Then they dealt with the entire situation down to the atomic level. That is how they restored faith in the Tylenol brand and saved the corporation.

MW: That should be required reading for all governments at all levels.

P: Oh yeah. You don’t want to think about how many lives would have been saved, and how many governments would have been spared, if the Tylenol crisis were a required study for bureaucrats the world over.

MW: But J and J knew exactly where to focus their search - Tylenol capsules - and what the agent was. China’s government might not have known what was going on and its exact locus.

P: All the more reason to tell China’s pork industry to go sit on a tack, if the industry was putting pressure on Beijing not to scare people off pork. There are times when it is best to yell, “Fire!” even if you only smell smoke. Johnson and Johnson learned that in the hardest way. They figured it was a homicidal maniac who reasonably couldn’t open bottles in stores far from the locus of the first attack. On paper the reasoning was correct. But they didn’t know where bottles could travel to once bought, and they had no idea how many bottles had been tampered with.

MW: You can’t fine-tune the assumptions at the early stage so you have to explain that to the public and hope they’ll understand if your direst warnings don’t pan out.

P: Yes, but I don’t think hope floats very far in this context. People in the USA have gotten used to ‘blanket’ product recalls when there is a machinery malfunction or health threat. People don’t stop buying cars or GM products if GM has to do a recall. If it keeps happening a lot - well, that’s a different story. But people aren’t idiots unless you train them to be. Sure, if you have a history of not telling anything unless it’s wrung out of you, then people will panic if you get honest all at once. So you have to factor that in -- make sure that the first announcement goes very thoroughly over the ground. Then update frequently.

MW: They can’t do that in China because many people still don’t have radios -

P: Aw, c’mon. Every village has at least one working radio. And they have colored cloth and flagpoles. You can work out a signal system. And guess what? At least one person in every village in China is literate and they have newspapers in China.

Instead, Beijing launched the ‘From the Moon’ means of informing citizens about a health crisis. First, take time to print up brochures. Then send out from Beijing 50,000 health workers to go knocking door to door all over China.

MW: I wonder if FEMA was taking notes. I think every village the world over with satellite reception has been glued to the communal television since the flooding began in New Orleans.

P: One good thing to come out of Katrina is that the chaos graphically illustrates to the poor in the developing world that they’d better stop depending on the United States to solve their problems.

MW: You’ve given the same warning countless times on your blog.

P: Sometimes readers get mad at Pundita for being mean; my mean mode is the best I can do because I can’t shake [the world] by the shoulders and yell, “Wake up!”

Times change, weather patterns change, things happen out of the blue. America is a great country but in the wake of Katrina the world has seen “that America is only the land of the half rich” as a British commentator put it.

MW: Not even half rich; I don’t think peoples in developing regions fully grasp that most of the Americans rushing to do volunteer work in the hurricane strike zones and give money to Katrina’s victims are not rich.

P: Time the world came to that grasp. Many people have a view of America that was handed down to them by parents who saw America’s largess during the Cold War era. Through the World Bank and other means, we gave billions to regimes that were willing to stand against Soviet expansion. We built them however many palaces and Sahib Zones they wanted. We made generations of elites filthy rich and did the Bread and Circus thing for countless poor. We also did much genuine good for countless poor.

MW: We came to be seen as gods and just as feckle and mysterious.

P: Pretty much so. Because of that [the US concept of] democracy became a mystery too. So I hope the people in lands such as Iran and throughout the developing world continue to stay tuned to their satellite TV stations. Watch as we recover from Katrina and rebuild. If they don’t see with their very own eyes how things work in a democracy, and that even a great democracy is very imperfect and always a process in motion, they will never get the idea that democracy means government by the people.

MW: I think the same lesson needs to be impressed on many Americans. It amazes me how people in Louisiana kept voting in administrations that they knew were corrupt then complaining about the corruption.

P: Sounds like the feudal serf mentality. Maybe it’s a holdover from thinking that arose from the plantation era. That thinking should have died out but maybe it was kept alive or resuscitated by an extensive welfare state. Whatever the story in Louisiana, I think it’s true that many Americans still tend to see democratic government as the country squire.

MW: I think we’ll be learning a lot about Louisiana government in the coming months. You’ve written that many people in fledgling democracies remain willing to ditch democracy at the first stiff breeze. To a great extent they’ve idealized democracy or been told an idealized story about it.

P. Yes. Democracy is just a bunch of people in charge instead of an elite. A bunch of democrats can make mistakes too. You pick up and go on, try to correct the mistakes, not vote back a dictator when things go very wrong. People in nascent democracies can come to understand this in graphic terms if they stay tuned to the Katrina aftermath and the media keeps the story going.

MW: I think the media will do that, at least in other countries, because people can’t get enough of the story. Some of it’s gloating, of course -- all-powerful America shown to be just like everyone else in many ways. But much of it is fascination, suspense. It’s a great drama and it’s been one cliffhanger after another.

P: I see coming down from the mountain as a good thing for American foreign policy and the world. America is supposed to be the world leader, not the Wizard of Oz. You need to see the leader, see how he acts under pressure, if you are to learn to follow his lead. You can talk all you want about democracy; people need to see how the gizmo works to understand what you mean.

MW: You think people in poorer countries can relate better to the Katrina disaster than to 9/11?

P: Oh, definitely. There were not filmed images of bodies littering the streets after 9/11 chiefly because anyone caught in the collapse of the Trade Towers was pulverized. I know that grisly point is very hard for an American to think about, but you need to put yourself in the place of a villager in Asia, the Middle East or Africa who is living in monsoon, earthquake or tidal wave alley.

How to put this? Most people in the world have not had a skyscraper collapse in their immediate vicinity. But the images of New Orleans were something many people the world over could relate to. In fact, several reporters on the scene said it looked like Bangladesh after a flood. That’s right. And Bangladesh after a flood looks like many places in the world after a flood or earthquake.

People watching the TV could see wrecked domiciles, survivors crying for help -- just go down the list; everything they saw, many people the world over could relate to in a very personal way. And coming so soon after the televised images of the Tsunami devastation, they could relate even more. So I believe that for the first time, many people feel a connection with Americans -

MW: Is that why you were so angry about DOS [US State Department] rejecting offers from aid from some countries?

P: I was angrier than I can remember being in a long time although I could have predicted State’s reaction. But I was angry for a lot of reasons. It was the final straw for me with DOS. They are - I think that agency is beyond redemption or repair.

MW: But a lot of it is isolation, tunnel vision; they probably didn’t even consider that people the world over were watching and feeling sympathy.

P: Yeah. Try to imagine being Cuban, Iranian, Venezuelan or Russian when the President of the United States stands up to thank the list of nations who gave -

MW: And not hearing your name called. The gifts should be accepted in the name of the people in the countries.

P: Exactly. Many of the donor nations are dirt poor. [But what did [the rejected nations] hear from State? “Your donation is not even for garbage because you are Cuban or Iranian; you’re not even fit to give.”

Imagine how you would feel. State just never stopped to think how the refusal would be perceived because there is nobody home at State to think. There is a Zombie, which was set in motion during the Cold War. The only thing Zombie knows how to do is bury the Soviets. A million years from now, there will be this creature still after the Soviet Empire. Put it in a rocket ship; it will hunt Soviets on Mars.

Michael: I know you’re not happy with the State Department -

Pundita: And not just a garden-variety zombie. This is Super Zombie; the Teflon Zombie. Do you ever hear any reporter going after State? No. It’s always the Congress or the White House … now I’ve lost my train of thought - where were we?

MW: I think we’d decided that all things equal, it was best for at least the poorest people in the world to see Americans at their most human. The Leftist press and governments with an ax to grind are excluded.

P: Well, they can try spinning this any way they please; it will backfire although they can’t see this now. Same with Abu Ghraib. At first they were dancing on the ceiling to see what Americans had done. Then came the inquiries and the arrests and prison sentences. So then the people watching their state-controlled TVs said, “Whoa. That would never happen in our country.”

That’s when coverage of Abu Ghraib was yanked in places such as Iran and China.

The silver lining to Katrina and the awful initial government handling of the evacuation, which began days before the hurricane struck, is that all peoples with access to satellite TV now have a common reference point. Conceivably that will save countless lives down the line, provided governments learn the lessons paraded across the TV screen.

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