Health Care

Nicki Minaj Causes the Establishment to Go DEFCON One

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Rapper Nicki Minaj arrives at the Met Gala in New York, May 7, 2018. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

On the menu today: More than I ever thought I would write about Nicki Minaj! The hip-hop star offered a spectacularly implausible claim about her cousin’s friend’s reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine, and this drove the public-health, media, and political authorities to DEFCON-One-level denunciations — vividly illustrating the establishment/anti-establishment dynamic in our culture, and illuminating how establishment health experts are putting enormous effort into an attempt to persuade the kinds of people who instinctively reject the recommendations of establishment health experts.

Nicki Minaj, the Unexpected Scourge of the American Public-Health and Political Establishment

Do I believe that hip-hop star Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend in Trinidad received a COVID-19 vaccine and then developed swollen testicles and became impotent? Let’s just say I am going to wait for the full review in The Lancet medical journal before drawing any firm conclusions. I also might want a second opinions from the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Nature, Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, Sloan-Kettering, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

But there is something spectacularly hilarious about this absurd turn in the national debate about COVID-19 vaccinations, where no less a figure than Dr. Anthony Fauci felt the need to go on national television and say, no, there is no evidence that the vaccine will make your testes blow up like a pair of balloons in some sort of twisted Ralph Bakshi-animated nightmare.

There is also something hysterical and ludicrous about the fact that media fact-checkers at places such as USA Today and PolitiFact felt the need to “fact check” a tweet from a hip-hop star that sounded one step removed from the urban legend that Little Mikey from the Life-cereal commercial died from the explosive effects of mixing Pop Rocks candy with Coke.

The White House apparently felt the need to reach out to Minaj and offered to connect her with a doctor with expertise. MSNBC’s Joy Reid did a whole segment denouncing Minaj, and there have been critical pieces about Minaj at CNN, Vox, CNBC, the BBC, and elsewhere. Minaj claims she is in “Twitter jail,” while Twitter insists it has not shut down her account. The late-night comics made her the butt of their jokes. Overnight, she’s become something akin to Public Enemy Number One.

Her claim of a COVID-19 vaccine inflating testicles is nonsense, of course, but there was a time when medical, political, and cultural experts didn’t go to DEFCON One if a celebrity had nutty beliefs about medicine or anything else. Lord knows we’ve joked about Gwyneth Paltrow’s nonsensical health recommendations for years. The current COVID-vaccine opposition was built upon preexisting anti-vaccine beliefs, which were heavily fueled by Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and other anti-vaccine activists who were given a welcome platform by Oprah Winfrey, among others. (And this isn’t even getting into Robert Kennedy Jr.) You probably don’t want to know about Sandra Bullock’s facials, where Josh Brolin got sunburned, or what’s in the Kardashians’ smoothies. But rest assured that Demi Moore only uses “highly trained medical leeches.”

Celebrities are weird. They don’t really live in what you and I would consider the real world. Their fabulous fortunes and fame are often directly tied into their appearance and the perception of youth, which drives them to go to ever more extreme lengths to ensure that they keep looking young and in their physical prime.

But now, in the 20th month of a global pandemic that the current president pledged to “shut down,” a ludicrous tall tale from a hip-hop star must be treated as if it’s a Russian intelligence disinformation campaign. The reaction of public-health experts suggests that they genuinely believe Minaj’s tweet about her cousin’s friend’s testicles will convince some portion of the public to not get vaccinated.

If you are the kind of person who would choose to not get a vaccine to protect against a virus that has killed more than 4.6 million people around the world, because you heard that Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend in Trinidad had his testicles swell up, there’s really not much that can be done to save you. Your ability to discern a trustworthy source of information is fatally flawed. You should not get your health advice from hip-hop stars who have no idea who you are, just as you should not take your personal-hygiene tips from Steve Jobs, you should not get your tax advice from Wesley Snipes, you should not take marital advice from O. J. Simpson, and you should not ask Armie Hammer to cater your next party. Nicki Minaj may have the best of intentions, but she is not a doctor and no, wearing a nurse’s outfit in a music video does not count.

The thing is, if you don’t want to get vaccinated because of a second-hand tale of a hip-hop star, you’re probably not going to be persuaded by a counterargument from Dr. Anthony Fauci or CNN’s Sanjay Gupta or PolitiFact. All of these establishment health experts are putting enormous effort into an attempt to persuade the kinds of people who instinctively reject the recommendations of establishment health experts.

Readers of this newsletter may or may not be familiar with Nicki Minaj. She may very well be insane, but if she is, she has managed to channel that insanity into a phenomenally successful music career. She churns out hit after hit, makes Madonna look modest or even prudish, and eats controversy for breakfast. Even with my limited familiarity with the hip-hop world — blame one of my podcast co-hosts — I cannot emphasize this enough; Nicki Minaj’s career runs on controversy the way most life forms run on oxygen. Her fans adore her, in part because they see her as uncompromising and authentic, an indefatigable fighter who never backs down from any critic or challenge.

(Say, does that description remind you of anyone else who has been on the political scene lately?)

But Minaj’s career has thus far thrived on the kinds of controversies that were almost standard-issue for hip-hop or top-tier celebrities — fights and beefs and rivalries with other rappers, wildly explicit depictions of sexuality, irking members of the LGBTQ community by declaring that she “used to be bi, now I’m just hetero.” Deviating from the dominant American cultural orthodoxy since the millennium means inevitably you will run afoul of at least one of the tenets of progressivism. Minaj described having an abortion as a teenager and recounted her intense internal conflict about her choice, saying it has “haunted me all my life.” While she describes herself as pro-choice, she seems resistant to the emerging sentiment from abortion proponents that terminating the pregnancy does not involve an emotional cost to the mother-to-be. Some Christian readers may also raise eyebrows at Minaj’s advice regarding whether to get vaccinated: “Just pray on it and make sure you’re comfortable with your decision, not bullied.” You don’t have to like all of Minaj’s music to look at her and wonder if there’s a more complicated and nuanced soul inside than the flashy image would suggest.

Hip-hop stars get a lot of leeway, even in our increasingly censorious culture. Provoking outrage is the coin of the realm, and combative controversy-courting is almost a requirement for stardom. But by expressing a certain degree of vaccine skepticism or wariness, Minaj has crossed a line that public-health experts, media voices, and certain politicians enforce, and committed a sin they cannot ignore or forgive. Watching the entire medical, media, and political establishments bring all of their weight to bear upon Minaj, you would think she was Alex Jones or Joe Rogan. Every claim, no matter how spectacularly outlandish and no matter the source, must be policed by our public-health-disinformation watchers, because those gullible masses could be swayed by any blasphemy. But people will believe what they want to believe, and you can’t reason someone out of a position that he didn’t reason himself into.

I doubt the furious and widespread denunciation and mockery of Minaj will have the effect the medical, media, and political establishments intend. Late Wednesday, Minaj demonstrated her contrition by approvingly retweeting a Tucker Carlson segment.

In this, the entire establishment/anti-establishment dynamic in our culture is vividly illustrated. Nicki Minaj is going to be just about impossible to “cancel.”  She’s already fabulously wealthy — her estimated net worth is $80 million to $100 million — and doesn’t need money. Her fan base isn’t going to abandon her if she maintains a vaccine-skeptical position. Defiance of what other people think is her brand. You might see a similar sensibility in Donald Trump, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, Kanye West, and other famous figures who are seen as politically incorrect or more controversial than others in their field. They do what they want to do and speak their minds, confident that no one can fire them and no one can fully de-platform them. It’s easy to see why some people would look up to those larger-than-life figures; many undoubtedly envy the full-spectrum freedom they seem to enjoy.

And in an American culture that feels particularly censorious, intolerant, and eager to suppress those who dissent from the orthodoxy of elites, a lot of people who might never think much about Nicki Minaj one way or another might admire her furious and fierce rejection of those insisting she must not say the things she’s said. When Reid denounced Minaj, Minaj reminded her followers of Reid’s old homophobic blog posts. When someone objected to her retweeting Tucker Carlson, she offered a particularly off-color description of what Democratic Party loyalty demanded of African Americans. She utterly rejects the moral authority of her critics — and a lot of Americans will probably relate to that sentiment . . . even if they don’t care for her music, or believe what she said about her cousin’s friend.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it, the U.S. State Department’s advice for those who want to get the proper papers to leave Afghanistan is to get them in person from U.S. embassies in neighboring countries. In other words, in order to get permission to leave Afghanistan, you must leave Afghanistan. Even Franz Kafka would say, “That’s a little over the top.”

Media

Blinken’s Hollow Assurances on Afghanistan

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” at the State Department in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via Reuters)

On the menu today: The plight of Americans and Afghans still trapped in that country is rapidly disappearing from the news cycle, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken offers implausible answers on Capitol Hill; and the Biden administration’s cynical bet about the short attention span of the American public appears to be paying off.

A Blinken Warning Light about American Commitments

Yesterday’s edition of the Morning Jolt did not include the daily reminder that at least 100 American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

But that reminder was almost superfluous in light of yesterday afternoon’s interview with Jean Marie Thrower, discussing the ongoing efforts of her group, the Afghan Rescue Crew, and the horrifying stories of what the Taliban is doing to innocent Afghans in its brutal campaign of retribution. I urge you to read it, but recognize that it is not for the faint of heart.

ARC is one of several private groups attempting to get Americans, green-card holders, and Afghan allies out of the country; others include No One Left Behind, Digital Dunkirk, Allied Airlift 21, Hearts and Homes for Refugees, Samaritan’s Purse, the “Pineapple Express,” and more. If you want to do something in what seems like a hopeless situation, those groups welcome all the help they can get.

Unfortunately, the plight of Americans and Afghans still trapped in that country is rapidly disappearing from the news cycle. Public interest appears to be waning even as Congress is still trying to get answers to basic questions, such as how many Americans are left in the country, what is the administration’s plan to get them out — it appears there is none — and where all of the administration’s much-touted leverage over the Taliban is, now that we desperately need it.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified on Capitol Hill yesterday, and while no Biden administration official could effectively defend the decision-making of recent months, Blinken couldn’t have done much worse if he had shown up in a clown suit and mimed this testimony.

Blinken contended that the number of Americans in Afghanistan is hard to say because it keeps changing, and that it would be several weeks before the State Department could give specific numbers:

On the American citizens who wish to leave, the number’s about one hundred. It is hard to give a real time number at any given moment, because it is very fluid, by which I mean this: some people — and we are in direct contact with this group — some for a very understandable reason are changing their mind from day-to-day about whether or not they want to leave. Others continue, even now, to raise their hands and say, ‘I am an American citizen in Afghanistan,’ someone who would not identify themselves before.

This does not explain why Blinken could not say something along the lines of, “As of 6 a.m. this morning, the State Department was in contact with 113 American citizens trying to leave the country.” How much could the number be changing from day to day? Blinken and the administration’s steadfast refusal to give any figure beyond “about 100” is evasive and arouses suspicion that the number is higher than they’re willing to admit.

Blinken continued:

The SIV numbers, that we are tabulating right now, trying to account for everyone who has come in, some people remain in transit, other people are now in the United States. We are putting all of those numbers together to determine, but the overwhelming majority of Afghans who have come out of Afghanistan thanks to our evacuation efforts are, in one way or another, Afghans at risk. Some will be — SIV applicants and others will be P1 or P2 applicants — others will be in none of those categories. We are breaking down those numbers and we should have a breakdown in the next couple of weeks.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said the numbers he had obtained suggested a colossal failure to get Special Immigrant Visa-holding Afghans out:

Here are the numbers that I have, the best that I have as the Ranking Member on the Homeland Security Committee, where we’ve pushed and pushed and pushed. 18,000 applicants for SIV. We got 705 out.” That would amount to an evacuation rate of less than 4 percent. Portman added, “the best numbers we have is that about three-quarters of the people who were evacuated were not green card holders, were not American citizens, were not SIV applicants, were not P1 or P2 visa holders.

The Afghans we evacuated may well have been at risk, as Blinken contended; lots of people, including all women in Afghanistan, are “at risk” right now. But they were not necessarily the Afghans that our government had promised to prioritize.

As Blinken offered hollow assurances about the security threats, other administration officials were admitting that the situation was rapidly getting worse:

Blinken said the administration would hold the Taliban, which hosted and protected Osama bin Laden and top members of his al-Qaida network as they plotted the 9/11 strikes, to their promises not to allow Afghanistan to be used again as a base for terrorist attacks.

But as he spoke, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida may be only 12 to 24 months from reconstituting itself in Afghanistan to pose a significant threat to the United States.

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, who leads the Defense Intelligence Agency, gave that estimate while speaking at the Intelligence & National Security Summit. Meanwhile, David Cohen, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the U.S. already had detected “some of the indications of some potential movement of al-Qaida to Afghanistan.”

Biden insisted that the withdrawal from Afghanistan would make Americans safer, but so far we’ve seen 13 members of the U.S. armed services killed, all of those American citizens and green-card holders trapped and under threat of being captured and tortured to death, and al-Qaeda returning to Afghanistan. This should be an above-the-fold, page-one story from coast to coast.

But it’s easy for Afghanistan to be forgotten when there are other big events happening, such as the news that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pledged to warn his Chinese counterpart about any U.S. attackswait, which country signs his paycheck? — and California governor Gavin Newsom’s easily surviving his recall attempt. Even the death of Norm Macdonald is a shock, the kind of unexpected celebrity death that forces us to pause and think of all the times his outrageous deadpan triggered the giggles that overwhelmed us. And then there are the comparably silly stories, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dress at the Met Gala.

The Biden administration bet that no matter how badly the Afghanistan withdrawal went, the vast majority of Americans would move on and eventually forget about it. Day by day, that looks like a safer bet. Unless the problem is something on the scale of the pandemic, an event that impacts and alters the lives of just about everyone on a continuing basis, every great controversy fades from the news after a few days. The situation at the border turns into a disaster, but the news cycle moves on. Economic indicators of inflation drive Americans’ grocery bills much higher, but the news cycle moves on. Documents reveal that Dr. Anthony Fauci lied, or at minimum was highly misleading, in his testimony to Congress, but the news cycle moves on. The U.S. intelligence community offers a terse and vague two-page summary of a 90-day review into the origins of COVID-19, but the news cycle moves on.

Don Henley wrote the spectacularly cynical song, “In the Garden of Allah,” back in the 1990s, shaped by the O. J. Simpson trial. The song depicts the Devil arriving in Los Angeles and finding, to his frustration and sadness, he has no more work to do: “Because there are no facts, there is no truth, just data to be manipulated. I can get you any result you like; what’s it worth to ya? Because there is no wrong, there is no right. And I sleep very well at night. No shame, no solution, no remorse, no retribution.”

The only time since the end of August that Biden has discussed Afghanistan was with reporters at a firehouse in Shanksville, Pa., on 9/11:

After al Qaeda was wiped out there — can al Qaeda come back? Yeah. But guess what? It’s already back in other places. What’s the strategy? Every place where al Qaeda is we’re going to invade and have troops stay there? Come on. Anyway. So, I just think that — and, again, what people are — as I read it, I’m told, people — 70 percent of the American people think it was time to get out of Afghanistan — spending all of that money.

But the flip of it is, they didn’t like the way we got out. But it’s hard to explain to anybody how else could you get out. For example, if we were in Tajikistan and we pulled up with a C-130 and said, ‘We’re going to let, you know, anybody who was involved with being sympathetic to us to get on the plane,’ you’d have people hanging in the wheel well. Come on.

In his eyes, we’re all so unreasonable in our expectations. No shame, and no solution.

ADDENDUM: Michael Brendan Dougherty with a point that ought to be heeded far and wide, but won’t be: “A normal way of saying [Gavin] Newsom “controls the entire state machinery while being backed by corporate media and big tech” is to say that he has the power of incumbency, and the support of powerful interests. We shouldn’t conflate the reality of long unfavorable odds with ‘fixed games’ and a stolen election. I may not be able to convince partisans that our fellow citizens are owed the truth. And if I can’t, I’d still argue that partisans — for their own reasons — should not want to remain deluded and in denial about their position.”

It’s always easier to convince yourself that your opponent cheated than to accept that you lost.

Health Care

Unions Fight Back against Vaccine Mandates

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Jamie Horning raises a sign to protest against the coronavirus vaccine mandates at Summa Health Hospital in Akron, Ohio, August 16, 2021. (Stephen Zenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: Hospitals, nursing homes, police forces, firehouses, and prisons are left to grapple with the ramifications of the Biden administration’s decision to require businesses with more than 100 employees to mandate COVID-19 vaccination or run weekly tests. Also, there’s a special opportunity for that exceptionally small demographic of people who can’t get enough of me.

The Unions Resisting the Vaccine Mandates

You probably heard about the New York hospital that has paused its maternity services as employees quit instead of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. “Six employees at the Lewis County Health System have resigned, and seven more are unwilling to get vaccinated, meaning Lewis County General Hospital will stop delivering babies for the time being.”

Little of the coverage of this hospital has noted that Lewis County has fewer than 27,000 people, the fourth-least populated county in New York, and there’s been little follow-up coverage noting that ten other employees have resigned, while another 13 chose to get vaccinated.

No doubt the “get vaccinated or get fired” approach feels good to the vaccinated who, in President Biden’s words, want to tell the unvaccinated, “Our patience is wearing thin.” But will Americans be as eager to enforce this policy when the people who chose to leave their jobs over their vaccination status have vital duties, especially amidst a shortage of trained workers?

Is the vaccine mandate worthwhile if it exacerbates the pressure on hospitals that it was supposed to relieve?

Many public-health experts paint the remaining unvaccinated as ignorant, paranoid, and uninformed about how vaccines and viruses work. But do those labels apply to health-care workers who don’t want to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

For example: “The Michigan Nurses Association remains opposed to mandates, saying they will drive vaccine-hesitant nurses to quit rather than submit to inoculation. The union contends such decisions are ‘best decided democratically by health care workers themselves and need to be subject to collective bargaining.’ A recent survey by the American Nurses Association found that roughly 13 percent of nurses did not plan to get vaccinated or remained unsure.” The Henry Ford hospital system in Michigan can now boast a 98 percent vaccination rate among its staff — but it also just announced it was closing 120 beds across five hospitals because of a staff shortage. The hospital system didn’t say the staff shortage is driven by the vaccine mandate, but clearly the world has nurses and medical staff who don’t want to get vaccinated.

A survey of University of Cincinnati Medical Center nurses conducted by the Ohio Nurses Association in August found that 136 out of 456 nurses who responded said they would quit rather than get vaccinated. In San Diego, “health care providers have reported over 1,700 requests for exemptions from the vaccine requirement — most of them based on religious objections.”

What if those needed workers quit, as some in Alabama fear?

According to Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, a few hospitals in the state have already opted for mandatory vaccinations, and the hospitals that haven’t strongly encourage them.

“Some of them have gotten over 80 percent of their employees vaccinated without going the mandatory route,” Williamson said. “So what we want to see is everybody get vaccinated, and we want that to happen in a way that doesn’t force people to make a dichotomous choice to either stay in health care and get vaccinated or get out of the health care system.”

If some health care workers would rather quit than get vaccinated, it would only further contribute to what Williamson called a “dire” staffing shortage in the state. It would also further exhaust an already overworked and fatigued health care system.

“We are short-staffed in every department,” Harris said. “And so it is very draining. It’s physically draining, but it’s also mentally draining.”

Williamson said there may be exceptions for why a health care worker can opt out of the White House’s new vaccine mandate, but until we know what those rules and exceptions are, it’s premature for health care workers to jump to the conclusion that they are going to have to be vaccinated.

“Rather than getting so invested in the idea that ‘I’m going to have to quit because I’m not going to be vaccinated,’ pause. Don’t make any commitments. Don’t make any life plans based on a presidential proposal,” Williamson said.

It’s also not just nurses. Back when Biden announced that all nursing-home staff would be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living warned that, “Industry leaders are deeply concerned that it may cause a mass exodus from the nursing home profession, leaving frail seniors without the caregivers and access to care they need.”

And keep in mind, a lot of nursing homes and long-term-care facilities are short-staffed already:

Pete Van Runkle, head of the Ohio Health Care Association, which represents the state’s for-profit long-term care facilities, fears staffing shortages in the Buckeye State. A facility in Ohio on average has 19 open positions it can’t fill, according to a recent Ohio Health Care Association survey. The mandate could make things worse, Van Runkle said.

“I’m scared to death of what that’s going to look like,” he said.

In Washington, D.C., certain firefighters and EMTs don’t want to get vaccinated:

Will Jones III, a five-year department veteran, and D.C. FEMS Sergeant Christopher Bernhard sent an email to several Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners on Monday asking for their support. The two argued that the vaccine requirement could cause a drastic reduction of the city’s firefighter force and impede the department’s abilities to respond to emergencies. According to their email, an estimated 900 workers — about 48 percent of the department’s total staff — have not received a COVID-19 vaccine.

A local branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington State told Governor Jay Inslee that, “We are against mandatory vaccinations that strip away our members’ right to choose and would also lead to them to be terminated from a career they have worked hard for and served selflessly to our communities, even during this pandemic.”

Police unions across the country are also resisting requirements that all staff get vaccinated:

In Newark on Thursday, police and fire unions from across New Jersey protested against the mayor’s vaccine mandate outside city hall. Police unions from Chicago to Richmond have pushed back against mandates in their cities. In Portland, Oregon, the local police union got its members exempted from the city’s vaccine order and a group of police and firefighter unions are suing Gov. Kate Brown to block the state’s vaccine requirement for its workers.

And mind you, in some of these police forces, the percentage of workers vaccinated is significantly lower than in the public at large: “An LAPD spokesperson declined to comment on the suit on Monday, but said that as of September 3, 47 percent of LAPD staff were fully vaccinated, and 54 percent had received at least one dose.”

U.S. vaccination supporters want to see as many people vaccinated as possible. But are they willing to fire significant numbers of nurses, nursing-home workers, firefighters, emergency first responders, cops, and prison guards in order to enforce the mandate?

Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that while COVID-19 dramatically increased the pressure and stress on nurses, the phenomenon of hospitals needing more nurses predates the pandemic. It will probably not surprise you that dumb regulations are a persistent problem, particularly in places such as California:

California is not part of the interstate nursing compact, which allows licensed nurses from elsewhere to practice here. In 2020, California loosened its “scope of practice” rules for nurse practitioners. It still imposes too many limits on other nursing-related and medical professionals.

That’s the right thing to do, although it shouldn’t have taken a public health crisis to force the state to waive rules that hinder the public’s access to necessary health care. Unions representing health care workers promoted many of these regulations as a way to limit competition and drive up salaries, so it was predictable that they ultimately would result in staffing shortages.

If occupational-licensing rules must be relaxed because of the pandemic, then why shouldn’t they be relaxed all the time? In addition to sunsetting unnecessarily burdensome regulations, the Legislature and governor should evaluate the state’s education system, which limits the ability of Californians to receive nursing degrees. It’s time to reform the health care education system.

For years, the number of qualified applicants to the state’s public nursing schools have exceeded the available slots. Yet the California Board of Registered Nursing appears to have limited the number of slots in private nursing programs out of concern that they will displace students from public universities. The state should instead encourage private schools to relieve the training bottleneck.

We have people who want to become nurses and who are qualified to become nurses . . . but whom regulations and nursing schools will not allow to become nurses. In many ways, a society gets the problems it deserves.

ADDENDUM: If you’re an NRPlus subscriber, I’ll be doing a Zoom call with readers this Thursday at 4 p.m. Eastern. If you’re not an NRPlus subscriber . . . what are you waiting for? You can get a year of NRPlus and a year of the print magazine for just $75 right now — that’s 42 percent off! (If you’re grumbling that we’re holding the call on Yom Kippur, that’s entirely my fault; I pitched that day of the week and completely forgot it was a Jewish holiday.) The high muckety-mucks at NR are picking 50 NRPlus members to join; if you’re an NRPlus member, check your email for the registration information. I think it is highly likely that the topics will be Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Health Care

U.S.-Funded Group Ignored Mask Rules during Bat Coronavirus Research

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A bat ecologist studies a trapped bat in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 19, 2021. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

On the menu today: EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S.-based health organization that used federal money to fund bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, apparently didn’t always see much of a need for personal protective equipment while collecting virus samples; a point about the 9/11 anniversary; and a reminder about Americans still in Afghanistan.

EcoHealth Alliance Ignored Safety Precautions Required by U.S. Government Grants

Last week, The Intercept obtained “more than 900 pages of documents detailing the work of EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based health organization that used federal money to fund bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The trove of documents includes two previously unpublished grant proposals that were funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as project updates relating to EcoHealth Alliance’s research, which has been scrutinized amid increased interest in the origins of the pandemic.”

The guys over at White Coat Waste notice that on page 134 of the 528-page grant authorization from the U.S. NIAID, the grant laid out specific safety requirements:

Fieldwork involves the highest risk for exposure to SARS or other CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled. There is also some risk of exposure to pathogens or physical injury while handling bats, civets, rodents or other animals, their blood samples or their excreta. . . . We have strict procedures for handling bats and working with samples from them as they are secured in the field and transported to the lab. Field team members handling animals will be trained to utilize personal protective equipment and practice proper environmental disinfection techniques. This includes wearing coveralls or dedicated clothing, nitrile gloves, eye protection, and a P95 or P100 respirator. All field clothing and equipment will be disinfected using Virkon disinfectant. [Emphasis added.]

And yet, contemporaneous accounts indicate that at least one EcoHealth Alliance staffer did not abide by the requirements for using personal protective equipment — because the researchers brought a journalist along on one of their expeditions to the bat-filled caves.

In February 2020, science writer David Quammen described his trip with EcoAlliance staff in an interview with NPR’s Dave Davies:

DAVIES: Now, when you were looking into this, you actually went to China with – and spent some time in the field with people who were investigating this, right? Tell us about that experience.

QUAMMEN: Right. I went with a fellow named Aleksei Chmura who was working as a researcher for a group that’s called EcoHealth Alliance, based in New York, a group of disease scientists who study these emerging viruses, these emerging pathogens in animals around the world. They generally have cross-training in virology, veterinary medicine, ecology, combinations of skills. So Aleksei was one of them.

Aleksei and a number of his Chinese colleagues and I flew to a city called Guilin (ph) in the province of Guangdong, Southern China. And we went out climbing into caves, bat caves in the Karst mountains, the limestone mountains and hills outside of the city of Guilin, looking to trap various different kinds of small bats, insectivore bats, not giant fruit bats, the small bats that lived in these caves, including horseshoe bats, which is a particular group of bats, so that Aleksei and his colleagues could draw blood samples and test those for looking for the SARS virus at that point or any other virus that was suspect.

DAVIES: You want to just describe a little bit of what it felt like to be trapping bats in these caves?

QUAMMEN: Well, it was a little bit claustrophobic. It’s not for everybody.

DAVIES: How do you catch them?

QUAMMEN: We climbed through – we climbed on our bellies through a very low hole to get into one of these caves. We had to squirm down and then up through this hole to get into the cave. And then the cave opened out. And Aleksei and his Chinese colleagues had essentially pillowcases and butterfly nets. And that’s how we caught these bats. The bats started flying around, and they would catch them in butterfly nets. And they were wearing gloves, and they would untangle a bat from a butterfly net and then drop it into one of these cloth bags that were like pillowcases. And in this case, as I recall, they would tie the knot off and then hand it to me, and I would go over and hang it on sort of a clothesline so that the pillowcase with a bat in it could dangle. And we were doing this – I don’t know. We were in there for a couple of hours. Oddly enough, we were not wearing masks of any sort. We were not wearing what they called personal protective equipment, hazmat suits or anything. And I describe this in the book. I asked Alexis, why the hell are we not? And he was just sort of fatalistic about it. He says there are constraints when you’re wearing personal protective gear. There’s always some danger. And he said, it’s my judgment that the danger here is low enough that I’m not wearing a mask and I’m not recommending that anybody else wear one either. When I did some similar things with other people, some of his colleagues from EcoHealth Alliance, we did wear masks and goggles and coveralls and several layers of gloves. [Emphasis added.]

Alexsei Chmura is now the chief of staff for the EcoHealth Alliance.

In Quammen’s 2013 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, he describes his conversation with Chmura about the lack of safety gear:

At this moment, I became conscious of a dreary human concern. Though we were searching for SARS-like coronavirus in these animals, and sharing their air in a closely confined space, none of us was wearing a mask. Not even a surgical mask, let alone an N95. Um, why is that? I asked Aleksei. “I guess it’s like not wearing a seat belt,” he said. What he meant was that our exposure represented a calculated, acceptable risk. You fly to a strange country, you jump into a cab at the airport, you’re in a hurry, you don’t speak the language — and usually there’s no seat belt, right/ DO you jump out and look for another cab? No, you proceed. You’ve got things to do. You might be killed on the way into town, true, but probably you won’t. Accepting that increment of risk is part of functioning within exigent circumstances. Likewise in a Chinese bat cave. If you were absolutely concerned to shield yourself against the virus, you’d need not just a mask but a full Tyvek coverall, and gloves, and goggles — or maybe even a bubble hood and visor, your whole suit positive-pressurized with filtered air drawn in by a batter-powered fan. “That’s not very practical,” Aleksei said.

Oh, I said, and continued handling the bagged bats. I couldn’t disagree. But what I thought was, catching SARS — that’s practical?

Hey, it’s not like a novel coronavirus from a bat could set off a global pandemic that would kill more than 4.6 million people and counting, right?

Quammen said that his trip with Chmura in China was in 2009. That trip was likely funded in part by a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases EcoHealth Alliance grant that started in 2008. And then EcoHealth Alliance received another NIAID grant in 2014 . . . after Quammen’s book came out, describing the lack of personal protective equipment on the virus-collecting expeditions.

What Didn’t Happen on Saturday

What remains of al-Qaeda, ISIS, ISIS-K, and every other Islamist group in the world would have loved to kill American citizens on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. They would have loved to set off bombs, hijack airliners, behead innocent people, shoot and stab innocent people, commit cyber-attacks against our infrastructure, disperse poison gases, unleash bioweapon viruses, and detonate stolen nuclear weapons.

But they didn’t succeed in doing any of that.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it became almost stylish to declare that America did everything wrong in the past two decades. (Matthew Continetti lays out the insufferable ubiquitous conventional wisdom here.) And yet, for all of our mistakes, bad decisions, alleged overreaction, etc., every day, the terrorists wake up, full of an appetite for destruction and a lust for killing innocent people . . . and they can’t. Once in a great while, a radicalized lone wolf or duo slips through and pulls off a San Bernardino or Pulse-nightclub shooting. But day after day, one aspiring Mohammed Atta after another ends up talking to an informant or has his communications intercepted the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency or Federal Bureau of Investigation gets word of their plans or the Pentagon drops a Hellfire missile from a drone on him. Week after week, year after year, one setback and disrupted plot after another.

Yes, we’ve made mistakes, but if the Islamists aren’t able to kill us as they wish, we must be doing something right, too.

I would describe the discussion around the 9/11 anniversary as self-flagellation, but I guess it’s more accurately an attempted flagellation of others — you silly Americans, you were so scared, you overreacted so severely to the mere destruction of lower Manhattan and nearly 3,000 dead. God grant us all the confidence and clarity of a big media essay writer, 20 years after a catastrophe, so certain that he would handle things just right. (It’s no longer online, but a fantastic Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon once mocked Tom Daschle’s suggestion that if he had been president, 9/11 would never have occurred.)

And yes, I do mean “he.” Did you notice these “If I were in charge, I would have done this instead and everything would be fixed” essays are always written by men? Maybe more women with memories of 9/11 can be more honest with themselves about how scared they, and all of us, were that the hijackings were just step one, and that more of us would be burying empty caskets and grieving our loved ones.

The Forgotten Americans

Oh, and because it must be repeated until everyone comes home, at least 100 American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

Hugh Hewitt observes that as of Sunday, the Biden administration still cannot say with any precision how many American citizens and how many U.S. green-card holders are left in Afghanistan. This is two weeks after all U.S. forces left the country.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it over the weekend, the U.S. State Department is now informing those concerned about Afghan allies that the department has temporarily stopped processing Special Immigrant Visas for the government’s Afghan allies, but “if you have concerns about your safety, you may contact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection office.” The U.N., meanwhile, is declaring that the Taliban is harassing and intimidating its Afghan staff.

Health Care

The Problem with Biden’s Vaccine-Hardball Strategy

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President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his administration’s efforts to increase vaccinations from the White House in Washington, D.C., September 9, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: In the aftermath of President Biden’s fuming speech drafting America’s employers into becoming the enforcers of vaccine mandates, it is worth pointing out that SARS-CoV-2 is extremely likely to become endemic — and that if unvaccinated Americans really represent some sort of threat to the vaccinated — a contestable argument — then the administration needs to grapple with the several billion unvaccinated human beings beyond our borders.

Our Endemic COVID-19 Future

The virus SARS-CoV-2 is extremely likely to become endemic. This means that it will never go away completely, the way the first SARS did, or the way various Ebola outbreaks of the past disappeared after a frightening and deadly burst of cases. Almost 90 percent of immunologists, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working on the coronavirus surveyed by Nature in February concluded the virus that causes COVID-19 was “very likely” or “likely” to become endemic.

This does not mean we are destined for a grim future of continually crowded hospitals, quarantines, restrictions, social-distancing, masks, and avoiding crowds. According to Nature, “Influenza and the four human coronaviruses that cause common colds are also endemic: but a combination of annual vaccines and acquired immunity means that societies tolerate the seasonal deaths and illnesses they bring without requiring lockdowns, masks and social distancing.” If SARS-CoV-2 becomes like other coronaviruses, it will become a virus that most future children will encounter early on in life, fight off, and develop a lasting ability to fight off in future encounters with minimal symptoms. In other words, someday, COVID-19 will become a public-health nuisance, not the society-disrupting force that it is today.

Yesterday, President Biden spoke at length, and angrily, about the 80 million American adults who have not yet gotten any vaccination shots.

The president’s message was somewhat muddled. He began by emphasizing that vaccinated Americans face almost no health risk from this virus. “Based on available data from the summer, only one of out of every 160,000 fully vaccinated Americans was hospitalized for COVID per day,” he said. “Recent data indicates there is only one confirmed positive case per 5,000 fully vaccinated Americans per day.” But then, Biden spoke as if unvaccinated Americans were endangering vaccinated Americans. “The bottom line: We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers.”

The only true health risk to vaccinated Americans is that they could face a crowded hospital. This could be solved instantly by prioritizing vaccinated Americans for care, but this is unthinkable for too many people. It also makes a mockery of the “health care is a human right” slogan preferred by so many Americans on the left side of the spectrum.

Many pro-vaccination Americans contend that unvaccinated Americans are putting the rest of us at risk, because the longer the virus is floating around, the more opportunities it will have to mutate into a variant that is not stopped by the current vaccines.

But there’s a real problem with this thinking. If any unvaccinated human being represents a potential opportunity for a terrible variant to arise, then yes, those 80 million American adults are a potential threat — but so are the roughly 50 million unvaccinated American children who will not be able to get vaccinated until “midwinter” at the earliest, according to the FDA. And both of those groups are a fairly small problem compared to the several billion unvaccinated human beings beyond our borders. A virus can mutate just as easily in the body of an Egyptian as it can in the body of an Alabaman.

The world has administered 5.63 billion vaccine doses so far, or 73 doses for every 100 people. But keep in mind, most of the available vaccines require two doses. Even if we decided to only give one dose to every person, we would only have 71 percent of the world’s nearly 7.9 billion people vaccinated. (It is also worth keeping in mind that other countries’ vaccines are not necessarily effective; there’s mounting evidence that the Chinese vaccines are particularly unreliable.) If every person required two doses, we would only have 35 percent of the world’s population vaccinated.

In other words, if SARS-CoV-2 will only go away when it no longer can find an unvaccinated human body to jump to, it will likely keep spreading for a long time — at least another year, and probably several years. (Although there is one scenario where it more or less disappears quickly, which I’ll discuss below.)

Yes, a particularly nasty new variant of SARS-CoV-2 could emerge in Louisiana, where only 50.3 percent of the population has received at least one shot. But it is much more likely that a truly dangerous new variant will emerge in highly populated, low-vaccination countries such as India, where 40 percent of the population has at least one shot; Russia, where only 31 percent of the population has at least one shot; Indonesia, where only 24 percent of the population has at least one shot; Pakistan, where only 23 percent of the population has at least one shot; or Bangladesh, where just 12 percent of the population has at least one shot. Nigeria has 211 million people; only 1.8 percent of the population has received at least one shot.

And if there’s anything we’ve learned from COVID-19, it’s that in an era of massive air travel, it is almost impossible to effectively quarantine against a virus that spreads this easily and quickly. You can set up what seems like a perfect system of strictly quarantining incoming air travelers for two weeks, and then watch it fall apart as the guards have sex with those who are supposed to be in lockdown. Human beings are going to interact with other human beings. Any pandemic-mitigation approach that depends upon human beings minimizing their contact with other human beings is one that cannot work for very long.

The Delta variant, or B.1.617, was first detected in the United Kingdom on February 22 and in the U.S. a day later. By the end of March, this variant had been detected in Ireland, Singapore, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Finland, Greece, Belgium, Sweden, South Korea, Uganda, Japan, Guadeloupe, Sint Maarten, and Switzerland — and this is in late February and March, when international air travel was a fraction of what it normally is. The entire philosophy and strategy of quarantines developed before mankind had the ability to fly from Beijing to Los Angeles in twelve hours. The influenza of the 1918 pandemic moved from one place to another the speed of steamships.

If your philosophy is, “Anyone who is unvaccinated is putting everyone else at risk,” then be prepared to live with risk for several years — because the risk does not just come from unvaccinated Americans, but also from unvaccinated Canadians and Mexicans and everyone else who’s not yet vaccinated in other countries. Oh, and remember, Europe is full of vaccine skeptics and anti-vaxxers, too.

As for that best-case scenario, we are now three-quarters of the way through the second year of this pandemic. The worst global pandemic of modern times, the Great Influenza pandemic, ran from February 1918 until April 1920 — really just two years and two months. That virus spread slower around the world, but human beings of that era didn’t have vaccinations and all of the medical advances we enjoy today.

John Barry wrote in his brilliant book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History:

By nature the influenza virus is dangerous, considerably more dangerous than the common aches and fever lead people to believe, but it does not kill routinely as it did in 1918. The 1918 pandemic reached an extreme of virulence unknown in any other widespread influenza outbreak in history. But the 1918 virus, like all influenza viruses, like all viruses that form mutant swarms, mutated rapidly.

There is a mathematical concept called “reversion to the mean”; this states simply that an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event. This is not a law, only a probability. The 1918 virus stood at an extreme; any mutations were more likely to make it less lethal than more lethal. In general, that is what happened. So just as it seemed that the virus would bring civilization to its knees, would do what the plagues of the Middle Ages had done, would remake the world, the virus mutated toward its mean, toward the behavior of most influenza viruses. As time went on, it became less lethal.

If the Delta variant represents the most contagious version of SARS-CoV-2, then reversion to the mean suggests that future mutations will make the virus less contagious. The Delta variant wave appears to have peaked in some states. We have 208 million Americans who have at least one shot, and we have more than 41 million diagnosed cases, meaning those people should have natural immunity from their past infection. Future variants and waves of SARS-CoV-2 may not find many people that can be easily infected.

Finally, if it’s so important that people get vaccinated that the Department of Labor must strong-arm employers into either firing them for not being vaccinated or force companies to run weekly tests of all employees . . . then why are employers with less than 100 employees exempt from Biden’s new rule? Are unvaccinated employees only a threat if they work at large companies? The ones working at small business just aren’t a big deal?

ADDENDUM: Because it needs to be said every day until it’s resolved, at least 100 American citizens, an unknown-but-considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

It is September 10, and the U.S. government still cannot say, with any specificity, how many Americans or U.S. green-card holders remain in Afghanistan.

World

Antony Blinken Changes His Tune

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to members of the U.S. embassy and Mission Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, September 7, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Reuters)

I was prepared to begin every Morning Jolt by noting that, “At least one hundred American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, ‘If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out,’” and to put those words in every Morning Jolt until those people came home. But there’s a little good news for at least a handful of Americans left in Afghanistan this morning. Elsewhere, Secretary of State Blinken now says that the Taliban won’t let Americans leave Mazar-e-Sharif; my reader fumes that the Biden administration has thrown Americans and Afghan allies into a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy; and it’s fair to wonder if Chuck Schumer has been test-driving a particularly implausible bit of political spin.

Antony Blinken: On Second Thought, Maybe This Is a Bit Like a Hostage Crisis

Yaroslav Trofimov and Dion Nissenbaum, reporting from on the ground in Kabul for the Wall Street Journal, bring news of at least one small step in the right direction: “Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities are allowing some 200 Americans and other foreign citizens to leave the country on a flight to Qatar scheduled for Thursday, the first such departure by air since U.S. forces withdrew last month, Qatari and American officials said.”

But they warn that, “The flight planned for Thursday doesn’t address the issue of tens of thousands of Afghans at risk who haven’t been able to leave the country during the U.S.-led airlift.” And that Qatar Airways Boeing 777 is in Kabul, ready for foreigners staying in a nearby hotel — separate from the groups of foreigners who are trying to get out on charter flights in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Trofimov and Nissenbaum report that, “For more than a week, about 100 Americans and hundreds of at-risk Afghans looking to flee the country have been waiting in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on a deal to allow them to fly out on charter flights. Mazar-e-Sharif’s international airport hasn’t been damaged. These negotiations have been bogged down, thwarting the efforts.”

Two days after declaring that he was not aware of any “hostage-like situation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken changed gears during an appearance in Germany and declared that the Taliban was not allowing charter flights of Americans, green-card holders, and Afghan allies to leave.

As of now, the Taliban are not permitting the charter flights to depart,” Blinken said. “They claim that some of the passengers do not have the required documentation. While there are limits to what we can do without personnel on the ground, without an airport with normal security procedures in place, we are working to do everything in our power to support those flights and to get them off the ground. . . . We’ve made clear to all parties — we’ve made clear to the Taliban — that these charters need to be able to depart, and we continue every day, virtually every hour, to work on that.”

The fact that so few Americans have left the country in the past ten days by plane or land route indicates that this is not merely a matter of the remaining Americans in the country procrastinating. The Taliban is breaking their worthless promises and will not let them leave, and U.S. policy is only catching up, more than a week late.

On August 31, White House press secretary Jen Psaki declared that, “We have enormous leverage over the Taliban, including access to the global marketplace, and that’s no small piece of leverage.”

Psaki’s comment always seemed like a classic example of “mirror-imaging” — erroneously assuming that what is important to officials in Washington is also important to foreign leaders. The Taliban have always believed that young girls who go to school deserve to have their faces scarred with acid. They burn down schools that teach girls. They’re whipping women who dare come out into the street and protest. They’re severely beating journalists who cover those protests. The Hazara ethnic minority is desperately trying to leave the country, fearing that the Taliban will carry out a full-scale genocide at the first opportunity.

Just how much do you think the men who make up the Taliban care about “access to the global marketplace”? Are members of the Taliban acting like they desperately want access to the “global marketplace”?

If “access to the global marketplace” isn’t really the “enormous leverage” that the Biden administration thinks it is, what else is the administration willing to do to get stronger leverage over the Taliban? Or is it comfortable with a worsening situation where it has so little leverage?

‘He’s Thrown Everyone into a Faceless Unaccountable Bureaucracy’

I reached out to my reader who’s trying to get his company’s former employees out of Afghanistan. (For background on this reader and his efforts, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

“Time is running out,” my reader began. “The weather will be closing and winter in the north will be brutal in a broken economy. Kabul was a disaster in the winter when we were there providing billions in aid and support. Can you imagine what it will be like with us completely gone and the Taliban in charge?”

Two days ago, a United Nations spokesperson warned that, “Basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing and food and other lifesaving aid is about to run out.”

“I can’t give [a] detailed status [report] other than to say none of my guys made it out yet,” my reader reported. “It’s so bad for these guys and their families. They followed the rules. They did as the State Department instructed. And now, they are left behind and State is making a horrible situation worse. There are multiple evacuation groups working loosely but in concert. To be sure, the contractors we are working with are exasperated and angry — but they are holding their tongues out of deference to the mission and the safety of the passengers. Lashing out publicly at [the] State Department, even though well-deserved, can backfire.”

My reader suspects that the Taliban’s claims about the need for “travel authorizations” are a paper-thin cover for their malevolent intentions.

“If there is somebody on the list they are looking for, you can bet their ‘papers will not be in order’ and they will not be permitted to leave,” he warns. “Imagine if you are a former Afghan government official, ANA member, or someone known to have worked on U.S. military projects. You want your name on a list given to the Taliban?”

The prospects for getting out over land are challenging. “Borders are closed to the north,” my reader says. “Trust me, they will magically open, once the northern countries get the U.S. government and U.N. money and benefits, as they seek to handle a crush of refugees. But that will take months to negotiate and build out. Even the Qatari border is closed to Afghans [for those attempting to fly to Qatar]. No one can fly commercial into Qatar from Afghanistan because of COVID protocols. Qatar was allowing the private evacuation flights into their air space to the U.S. military base, provided travelers were contained on the base or in transit to another destination out of the country.”

My reader also laid out another glaring sign of how unprepared our government was for this crisis. “If [the] Biden administration really wanted to help, [the Departments of Defense] and State would be ordered to continue to support a refugee evacuation operation from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Have you heard such an order from Biden or Austin? Me neither. DoD will tell you that is not their mission, and the air base is not equipped to handle it — and they’re right. They temporarily ran it there out of hangars and ‘wedding tents.’ Al Udeid is a ‘point of the spear’ operation bristling with war fighters and weapons — not designed for humanitarian aid.”

Stars and Stripes characterized the air base as “running on fumes” as it dealt with Afghanistan operations, back on August 24.

“I assure you, DoD would rather the State Department, USAID and the United Nations handle it,” my reader concluded. “When Austin says the DoD will support the DOS, that really means, ‘we’re not doing anything unless the Commander-in-Chief orders us.’ As far as Biden is concerned, this is now an administrative matter being led by the State Department. He’s thrown everyone into a faceless unaccountable bureaucracy.”

Chuck Schumer Test-Drives an Implausible Spin Effort

Yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch, Greg Corombos and I discussed Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer’s flat-out false statement to a Syracuse television station: “I’m still focused on trying to get some of those brave Afghans out. The Americans, all of whom wanted to come out have come out, praise God.”

In a pleasant surprise, quite a few mainstream-media fact-checkers broke out of their habit of fact-checking anonymously created Facebook memes and insisting that the value of the U.S.-made military equipment seized by the Taliban is only $24 billion, not $85 billion, and bothered to point out that the Senate majority leader was lying. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, CNN’s Daniel Dale, and even Glenn Kessler roused themselves to say it was wrong — and Schumer’s spokesman issued a statement that he “misspoke.”

I don’t buy that it was an innocent slip of the tongue, though. Schumer said it casually and matter-of-fact, as if everybody knew that all of the Americans who wanted out of Afghanistan had gotten out. It is fair to wonder what Schumer was briefed on by the administration, and whether administration officials are giving him inaccurate happy talk behind closed doors. But we saw this spin coming back on August 24, when the administration kept emphasizing that it would get out everyone who “wanted” to get out, implying that a significant number of Americans wanted to stay. The easiest way to hand-wave away a catastrophic failure and a broken promise is to pretend that the Americans who are currently trapped in the country just never wanted to leave.

ADDENDUM: President Biden, August 20: “Look, let’s put this thing in perspective. What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al Qaeda gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan as well as — as well as — getting Osama bin Laden. And we did.”

The AP, today: “U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday the al-Qaida extremist group that used Afghanistan as a staging base to attack United States 20 years ago may attempt to regenerate there following an American withdrawal that has left the Taliban in power.”

He’s President Mr. Magoo — he just doesn’t see things!

Health Care

Few of Our COVID-19 Policies Make Any Sense

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A shopper passes a social-distancing sign at Coastal Grand Mall on Black Friday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., November 27, 2020. (Micah Green/Reuters)

On the menu today: a long look at the government’s contradictory and sometimes nonsensical rules, laws, and policies in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, as President Biden — who promised to “shut down the virus” last fall — now promises Americans a “new strategy” against the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Chinese government lets slip that it expect its people to still be threatened by the virus six months from now.

Oh, and because this should never be forgotten, no matter what else is going on in the news: At least one hundred American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

The Government’s Contradictory COVID Restrictions

Tomorrow, President Biden is scheduled to lay out “a new strategy” to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the White House promises the plan will include “boosting vaccinations.”

On social media, the most popular sport is to find some celebrity, professional athlete, or gadfly who refuses to get vaccinated, blame them for the fact that the pandemic hasn’t ended, and lament that we’re such a terrible country full of idiots who refuse to get vaccinated. It’s really easy to forget the fact that 92.4 percent of America’s seniors have at least one shot, 75 percent of all American adults have at least one shot, and more than 73 percent of all eligible Americans have at least one shot. When you see the glum statement that “only 62.5 percent of Americans have one shot,” that figure includes the roughly 50 million American children age eleven and younger who can’t get vaccinated yet.

Biden is expected to encourage employers to enact vaccine mandates for employees . . . just like he did a little more than two weeks ago. The president seems to think we’re just one more round of vaccine mandates from putting this pandemic behind us — as if the country hasn’t spent all of this year making every possible effort to persuade the reluctant, offering everything from prizes to scholarships to discounts on game and fishing licenses.

It’s a shame that Biden’s “new strategy” appears to be the same old strategy as before, just louder. If he and his team really stopped and examined the nation’s fight against the virus, they would find that a whole lot of policies at the state, local, campus, and school-district levels just don’t make a lot of sense — and that this confusing, contradictory gobbledygook makes people throw up their hands and just trust their own instincts:

  • Oregon still requires fully vaccinated citizens to wear masks outdoors. Now, even aside from the fact that transmission of the virus outdoors is exceptionally rare, every time a policy doesn’t distinguish between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, it is sending the subtle, inadvertent signal that getting vaccinated doesn’t actually change anything.
  • In Hawaii, bars and restaurants must close by 10 p.m. starting next week, because apparently the local officials believe this virus is like a vampire and is most active at night. Keep in mind, just under 75 percent of all Hawaiians have received at least one shot of a vaccine, which is one of the best rates in the country.
  • At the University of Michigan, 92 percent of students and 90 percent of faculty are fully vaccinated, and masks are required indoors, spurring administrators to contend that “perhaps the safest place to be on campus this fall will be in the classroom.” But more than 700 faculty and graduate-student instructors think that isn’t enough, and signed a petition calling for “required testing twice a week, allowing six feet of space between each person in a room and a mandatory 14-day quarantine policy for vaccinated close contacts of positive cases.” Let me spell it out for you: There is absolutely no reason that two people who are vaccinated and wearing masks need to be six feet apart. If people are calling for vaccinated and masked individuals to social distance, they are sending the subtle, inadvertent signal that wearing masks doesn’t actually do any good.
  • At Cornell University, students who do not test positive for COVID-19 are still required to quarantine for seven days if they have been exposed to someone who did have COVID-19. Meanwhile, some of those same students cannot get a test to see if they have COVID-19.
  • Not too far from my neck of the woods, the public-school system in Montgomery County, Md., requires all students who may have been exposed to a student who tests positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for ten days. But according to parents, “A student who shows symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, at their school or in a classroom, isn’t being tested before the school district decides to send everyone who may have been exposed to that student — home, to quarantine.” There’s no easy way to determine whether a kid with the sniffles, a cough, or a fever has a summer cold or COVID-19, and so apparently the de facto policy is to send everyone home if anyone in the class shows any sign of sickness at all. More sensibly, in my neck of the woods, Fairfax County Public Schools realized that if a fully vaccinated teenager who was in close contact with an infected person has no symptoms, there’s no need to keep them out of school.
  • You may have noticed the theme in the above reports that sorting out who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t is hindered by a lack of tests. Somehow, nearly two years into this pandemic, we still don’t have enough tests in many parts of the country. Pediatricians in Nashville say they don’t have enough tests. Labs in central Kentucky say they’ve run out of the rapid tests. The public-school system in Pasadena, Calif., unveiled a new weekly testing regimen for all staff — but it can’t find enough tests for everyone. In my neck of the woods, you can’t get a test unless you have symptoms.
  • In Jackson County, N.C., the public-school system is barring visitors from school grounds — never mind if the person is vaccinated, never mind if the person is wearing a mask. Similarly, a hospital chain in Michigan is limiting visitors to patients — whether or not they’re vaccinated, whether or not they’re masked.
  • Starting tomorrow, the Pentagon will move to “Health Protection Condition Bravo Plus,” which, among other things, declares that, “Organizations are expected to maintain occupancy rates at less than 40 percent of normal occupancy in workspaces.”
  • On August 18, the FDA and CDC announced that, “We conclude that a booster shot will be needed to maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability.” (This announcement meant that the definition of “fully vaccinated” is now blurred. You’re fully vaccinated for eight months after your second shot, but nine months after it, you’re back to partially vaccinated.) President Biden declared, “Just remember as a simple rule, eight months after your second shot, get a booster shot.” Except now we learn that, “Top federal health officials have told the White House to scale back a plan to offer coronavirus booster shots to the general public this month, saying that regulators need more time to collect and review all the necessary data.” That seems like the sort of thing that should be worked out before the president goes on television and tells Americans to go out and get a third shot. Quite a few Americans — an estimated 1.3 million — have already gone out and gotten the third shot and not waited for government say-so.
  • Yesterday, I laid out how our current pandemic-driven restrictions limiting who can legally enter the country make no sense — based on case rates, vaccination rates, or prioritizing citizens of countries that are our allies. The best way to summarize it is that shortly before Joe Biden became president, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa had scary variants, and thus we made it much more difficult for citizens of those countries to enter the U.S. (China, India, and Iran had already been on the list.) Of course, those scary variants have now spread to lots of other countries, and in the intervening months many countries have vaccinated many citizens, but our entry restrictions seem frozen in amber from January.

My sons are currently wearing masks in class. Is that ideal? Hell no. Are they functioning with masks on? Yes, and if the mask policy keeps nervous-nellie parents from freaking out and prevents schools from panicking and going back to “virtual learning,” fine. I’d like the kids to be able to enjoy a day with pre-pandemic normalcy and see each other’s faces, but we need schools to be operating on a normal schedule, five days a week, to undo the egregious damage of distance learning, which was far too often a debacle. If your child thrived over the past two years, terrific. But most kids are much better off interacting with their teachers and their peers, even if everyone’s wearing a mask.

As I laid out in my most recent magazine article that pleased absolutely no one, masks do some good but aren’t perfect, and it is fair to question whether cloth masks are really that effective against the more-contagious Delta variant. But for all of the parental concern, it’s worth keeping in mind that all of the available data, as laid out and analyzed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, show that COVID-19 is a minor threat to our children. That’s not quite a zero threat, but if your child catches COVID-19, your child will probably be fine:

As of September 2, over 5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. Among states reporting, children ranged from 1.6 percent to 4.1 percent of the states’ total cumulated hospitalizations, and 0.1 percent to 1.9 percent of all their child COVID-19 cases resulted in hospitalization. Among states reporting, children were 0.00 percent to 0.27 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, and 7 states reported zero child deaths. In states reporting, 0.00 percent to 0.03 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death.

Public-health professors Joseph G. Allen and Helen Jenkins made a terrific point in a New York Times op-ed last week, declaring that, “Any organization setting a mask mandate at this point in the pandemic in the United States must pair that mandate with an offramp plan. Sleepwalking into indefinite masking is not in anyone’s interests and can increase distrust after an already very difficult year.”

At the heart of that op-ed were questions like: Just what are we trying to do here? What is our ultimate goal? If President Biden’s address tomorrow tackles those big questions, the country will be better off. The hyper-contagiousness of the Delta variant means that reaching herd immunity is going to require an extremely high percentage of the population to have the ability to quickly fight off the virus, either through vaccination or previous exposure to the virus. (The Delta variant is not quite as contagious as chicken pox, but it’s still plenty contagious.) If you’re vulnerable, getting up there in years, or have a comorbidity, you should get yourself vaccinated ASAP. If you’re young and healthy, you should still get vaccinated — but if you choose otherwise, you accept the risks to your own health.

If you’re vaccinated, you don’t do yourself much good to spend a lot of time fuming over those who refuse to get vaccinated. Those folks will run into the Delta variant sooner or later, and one of three things will happen. If they’ve had a previous COVID-19 infection, their experienced immune systems will probably give them the ability to fight it off. Or their immune system will fight it off, even without a past run-in with COVID-19. Or they’ll die. Their decision is not something you can control.

ADDENDUM: Bloomberg reports that the Chinese government’s pandemic provisions for their national games, coming up next week, are a test-drive for the pandemic restrictions that Beijing expects to have in place for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin February 4, 2022.

So the Chinese government expects COVID-19 to still be a major threat in February 2022, huh?

World

Secretary of State Blinken: This Is Not a Hostage Crisis

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Doha, Qatar, September 7, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Reuters)

On the menu today: Veterans groups contend that many more Americans are stranded in Afghanistan than the “about 100” figure from Secretary of State Antony Blinken; the administration still cannot say how many U.S. green-card holders remain in Taliban-controlled territories; the Taliban begins executing pregnant women for working with the previous regime; and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin concedes that without U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan, “It will be more difficult to identify and engage threats that emanate from the region.”

Blinken’s Evasive Afghanistan Answers

To hear Secretary of State Antony Blinken tell it, there are no American hostages in Afghanistan. In his account, the lack of Americans leaving the country in the past week is just due to a routine disagreement about paperwork and visas that is leading to delays:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday the Taliban had been reminded in recent hours that the international community is holding the group to its commitment to let anyone with valid travel papers leave Afghanistan if they choose.

Speaking during a visit to Qatar, Blinken said the number of U.S. citizens, including dual nationals, believed to still be in Afghanistan is about 100. He said the State Department is in direct contact with them, with case managers assigned to each one to make sure those who want to leave can do so.

He said in the past 24 hours the Taliban had upheld its commitment in the case of a family of four Americans who had safely left Afghanistan using an overland route. A senior State Department official said Monday the Taliban was aware of the crossing, without specifying which country the Americans entered.

According to Reuters, Blinken said today that, “We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft or any hostage like situation at Mazar-i-Sharif. So, we have to work through the different requirements and that’s exactly what we are doing.”

On Sunday, White House chief of staff Ron Klain dodged the question of how many Americans had been allowed to leave the country since the U.S. forces departed. The fact that Blinken is citing the case of a family of four suggests that American departures from Afghanistan are now few and far between.

Regarding the family of four that Blinken mentioned, a group of veterans using private donations got the mother and three children out of the country, and those veterans accused the U.S. State Department of attempting to take credit for their work. Cory Mills told Fox News that, “The fact that they’re spinning this, trying to take 100 percent credit when they didn’t track this family, when they placated this family, when the mother, who was under extreme stress and extreme pressure, reached out to the State Department multiple times and got no help.”

The account of the woman, identified only as Mariam, is harrowing: “The final time Mariam tried to enter the airport, a Taliban fighter pointed a pistol at her head and warned her not to come back. Shortly after that, Taliban fighters asked Kabul locals who knew Miriam how they could find her. Mills’ team rushed to get her and the children out of the city and into a safehouse.” Mills said that the Taliban closed the border checkpoint shortly after Miriam escaped.

The Taliban actions described above do not sound anything like “letting anyone with valid travel papers leave Afghanistan if they choose.”

This weekend, Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appeared on Fox News Sunday and contended that the administration was undercounting the number of Americans still in Afghanistan. “I’ve been given the answer in the classified space but it’s in the hundreds. We have hundreds of American citizens left behind enemy lines in Afghanistan as I speak. And also, very sadly, the interpreters who worked with our special forces, almost all of them were left behind and were not let in the gates at the airport at [Hamid Karzai International] to get out.” Speaking Sunday morning, McCaul said that “zero” Americans had left the country since U.S. troops departed.

McCaul’s estimate aligns with that of veteran-led rescue groups, who point out that the administration simply isn’t saying much of anything about U.S. green-card holders who are still in Afghanistan:

Veteran-led rescue groups say the Biden administration’s estimate that no more than 200 U.S. citizens were left behind in Afghanistan is too low and also overlooks hundreds of other people they consider to be equally American: permanent legal residents with green cards.

Some groups say they continue to be contacted by American citizens in Afghanistan who did not register with the U.S. Embassy before it closed and by others not included in previous counts because they expressed misgivings about leaving loved ones behind.

As for green card holders, they have lived in the U.S. for years, paid taxes, become part of their communities and often have children who are U.S. citizens. Yet the administration says it does not have an estimate on the number of such permanent residents who are in Afghanistan and desperately trying to escape Taliban rule.

“The fear is that nobody is looking for them,” said Howard Shen, spokesman for the Cajon Valley Union School District in the San Diego area that is in contact with one such family who says they cannot get out.

“They are thousands of miles away under an oppressive regime and we’re leaving them behind,” he said. “That’s not right.”

McCaul broke some news on the program when he revealed that, “We have six airplanes at Mazar Sharif Airport, six airplanes with American citizens on them as I speak, also with these interpreters, and the Taliban is holding them hostage for demands right now. They — we — the state has cleared these flights and the Taliban will not let them leave the airport.”

Some of the details of McCaul’s account were verified by the director of a relief organization, speaking to NPR:

Multiple planes meant to ferry hundreds of people who say they are fearful of life under the Taliban’s rule, including American citizens and green card holders, spent another day parked on an airstrip in northern Afghanistan Monday.

Marina LeGree, executive director of Ascend, a non-profit that teaches young Afghan women leadership through mountaineering and other athletics, told NPR’s Jackie Northam that several Afghans affiliated with her group remained stuck. LeGree said that was in addition to more than 600 others, including at least 19 American citizens and two U.S. green card holders.

Among the hundreds of stranded travelers were members of nongovernmental organizations, journalists and women at risk, according to LeGree.

LeGree, from her home in Italy, said these travelers had now spent seven days in anticipation of clearance to take off, taking up residence near the airport in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. . . .

But the [U.S. State] department also said that it discourages chartered airplanes because — with no more of its personnel left on the ground in Afghanistan — it could not properly confirm the planes’ passenger manifests.

One of the complications that the administration’s statements choose to ignore is that the Taliban is not a particularly coherent, disciplined, or coordinated governing force. An assurance from one Taliban leader about safe passage may not filter down to the men in their late teens with M4 rifles at any particular checkpoint. Even if the Taliban wanted to keep their promises about safe passage — an extremely debatable contention — they may not be capable of keeping it; there are simply too many hot-tempered, heavily armed young men who are enjoying their newfound power over everyone they encounter.

Some longtime Biden allies are starting to criticize his administration. Connecticut Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal declared on Twitter Monday that:

My staff and I have worked night and day to secure the safe passage of two planes waiting in Mazar-e Sharif to take American citizens, at-risk Afghan allies, and their families to safety. . . . I haven’t yet spoken publicly about these efforts because we worried that heightened attention would only escalate tensions & put these people at even greater risk of being targeted. I have been deeply frustrated, even furious, at our government’s delay & inaction. There will be plenty of time to seek accountability for the inexcusable bureaucratic red tape that stranded so many of our Afghan allies. For now, my singular focus remains getting these planes in the air & safely to our airbase in Doha, where they have already been cleared to land.  I expect the White House & State Department to do everything in their power — absolutely everything — to make this happen. These are Americans citizens and Afghans who risked everything for our country. We cannot leave them behind.

CNN still has enough sources on the ground to give us a sense of how the new, more moderate Taliban are operating:

The Taliban murdered a pregnant policewoman in front of her family on Saturday night, according to her son. Her death, in the central Afghanistan province of Ghor, adds to mounting concerns about the repression of women under the Taliban’s rule.

The victim’s full name was Negar Masoomi, her sister told CNN. Her killing was also confirmed to CNN by a local journalist in Ghor, who said she worked in Ghor prison and was eight months pregnant when she died.

The Taliban told CNN they were not involved in her death, but have launched an investigation.

Video obtained by CNN showed her son Mohammad Hanif giving his account of the murder, saying that the Taliban came inside the house where his family lives, then took himself and his brothers outside and tied them up.

“They killed our mother before our eyes. They killed her with a knife,” Hanif said.

In Doha, Blinken was joined by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who made a curious comment during the press conference, admitting that there is “no question that it will be more difficult to identify and engage threats that emanate from the region.” That is the opposite of what President Biden assured when defending his drawdown decision.

On July 8, Biden said, “Our military and intelligence leaders are confident they have the capabilities to protect the homeland and our interests from any resurgent terrorist challenge emerging or emanating from Afghanistan. We are developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed.”

Was anything Joe Biden said in that July 8 press conference true?

ADDENDUM: The Associated Press reports that, “After a torrent of crises, President Joe Biden is hoping to turn the page on an unrelenting summer and refocus his presidency this fall around his core economic agenda.”

It’s time to “turn the page” on Afghanistan!

National Security & Defense

Joe Biden Wants You to Forget the Afghanistan Debacle

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President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington, D.C. September 2, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: While Afghanistan disappears from American news coverage, the Taliban threatens the relatives of Afghans who immigrated to America, Senate Republicans demand answers to basic questions about who is still stranded in Afghanistan and what’s being done to get them out, and a Biden administration official reveals why no one will get fired for this debacle.

Mr. President, Americans Are Still Stranded in Afghanistan

This morning, Mike Allen of Axios reports, “President Biden is eager for a fight over abortion — an issue he sees as politically advantageous after the conservative Supreme Court left in place the near-ban in Texas.”

Of course Biden wants a fight over abortion. It’s extremely familiar territory for him and for the rest of the country. And it would distract attention from the fact that the president broke his promise, made on national television, that if there were still Americans in Afghanistan after August 31, we would “stay to get them all out.” A hundred to 200 American citizens, “thousands” of green-card holders, and a majority of the 250,000 Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas are still stranded in Afghanistan. Biden has betrayed them in a colossal dereliction of his duty, and in the process failed and humiliated our nation. So of course he desperately wants to change the subject.

As of 7 a.m. this morning, just two of the 62 news items featured on Memeorandum are about Afghanistan. The front page of the Washington Post website featured a good, detailed story on anti-Taliban resistance fighters in Panjshir, including “a significant number of former Afghan army soldiers, special forces troops and commandos,” who it says represent “the most serious challenge the Taliban has faced.” (Odd: I remember President Biden declaring, “the Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”) Beyond that, Afghanistan is no longer a central part of the news cycle.

It’s not that news articles about Afghanistan have completely disappeared. They’re just not in the print editions of major newspapers, not at the top of major news websites, and not the lead stories on cable-news and news-radio shows. The typical news consumer must now look for coverage of what’s happening in Afghanistan, instead of finding it front and center.

Our government abandoned Americans behind enemy lines, and apparently, it’s just not that big a deal to a lot of people.

Today, President Biden is scheduled to speak publicly about the latest jobs report, tour a neighborhood in LaPlace, La., and then deliver remarks on his administration’s response to Hurricane Ida. He will spend this coming weekend in Wilmington, Del.

But whether the president wants to talk about it or not, those Americans are still in Afghanistan, still scared, still wondering if the Taliban are going to pound on their doors in the middle of the night. I’m still getting updates from my reader about Afghans who helped Americans, some of whom are moving from one city to another because they fear their current locations are no longer safe.

We haven’t always been so blasé about leaving our own behind in danger abroad. Four days after the Iranians took Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in 1979, ABC News created the program America Held Hostage: The Iran Crisis. As anchor Ted Koppel recalled, “They took out an ad the next morning in the New York Times or the Washington Post saying, ‘ABC News will stay on the air with “America Held Hostage” until the hostages are released.’ Which, as it turned out, was 444 days after they were captured. By which time, that interim program that ABC News put on at 11:30 at night, it evolved into ‘ABC News Nightline.’ A permanent program.” There was an enormous national hunger for news on what was happening with the hostages. “It was not unusual for us to have 10 million people watching the program,” Koppel said in a 2009 interview.

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and 25 other Republican senators have written to the president, demanding answers to a slew of questions, such as:

  • How many American citizens does the administration believe to remain in Afghanistan?
  • Of the American citizens still in Afghanistan, how many are currently in contact with the State Department?
  • Of the green-card holders still in Afghanistan, how many are currently in contact with the State Department?
  • Are the State Department and USCIS still processing pending SIV applications? What steps are being taken to ensure that pending applicants are safe from Taliban reprisals as their applications are adjudicated?
  • Of the more than 57,000 Afghans who are not American citizens, green-card holders, or SIV applicants or their families, how many had no pending immigration application or status with the United States prior to being airlifted?

The administration and much of the country are apparently ready to move on without knowing the answers to any of these questions.

Once you look for news coverage of Afghanistan, you realize how much the story isn’t over, and how many details of what went wrong are still unknown.

An American woman in Idaho described being beaten by the Taliban as she tried to get through the gates at Kabul airport.

Wahida Ivey is a U.S Citizen who was born in Afghanistan and left in 1981 when Russia invaded the country. With help from Senator Rischs’ office, she returned after visiting her family for a week. She knew that American’s would soon evacuate the country, so she wanted to see her cousins and sister before.

“I kind of knew what was about to happen, but I also knew that if I didn’t go see my sister, I probably would’ve never got to see her again,” she said.

Ivey said what she saw were chaos and disfunction. She added that there was no priority to get the U.S citizens evacuated first. She made five attempts to get on a plane back to America, what she saw throughout the process was disturbing.

“Pushing shoving, Taliban are there at the gate, they are hitting people with the wires, and I have bruises I took a couple of hits, they don’t see people they see them as this rush of animals standing at the doors, and these people are just desperate to make it through that gate,” she said.

… “We must hold on to the promise we made, to the people that worked for us, to the people that held our hands when we needed our hands to be held, they deserve much better than that and we should not turn our back to them, it’s not okay,” she said. “These are also human beings, they have family, they have children, it is their home but it’s not a home safe for them to live in.”

The Taliban are threatening the families of American citizens who are living in the U.S.:

An Afghan refugee who’s been living in Houston for the past two years says the Taliban sent a letter to her family, who is hiding in Afghanistan, stating that they need to come forward and demanded her return.

She is now desperately trying to get them out and somewhere safe.

. . . Taliban soldiers dropped a letter off at her family’s home in Afghanistan. She said the letter stated that her family must go to the office of the Taliban. She said the letter also stated that family members who had fled to the US must return.

“We will catch them, too, you and your members that are in the United States,” she said as she translated the letter.

The U.S. left its employees behind, the Wall Street Journal reports:

Lawmakers and media organizations are calling on the Biden administration to help get more than 100 government-funded media employees out of Afghanistan, where they risk retribution from the Taliban for their affiliation with the U.S. government.

Combined with their family members, the number of workers for Voice of America and the Afghan branch of Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe left behind totals more than 500, according to lawmakers who have asked President Biden to ensure that they get out of the country safely. The media staffers, who aren’t U.S. citizens, are contractors, unlike their colleagues in the U.S., who work directly for the U.S. government.

From Sky News:

While the Taliban may not have access to everything the Afghan Air Force once had, it’s clear that some aircraft have been repurposed by the group.

And experts are worried that even one helicopter could dramatically increase the Taliban’s capacity to inflict violence on communities they have targeted in the past.

“I think what alarms a lot of Afghans now is the potential that you have a Black Hawk helicopter being brought to bear on a village, essentially, say, of Hazaras, a community that they targeted in the 1990s in acts of violence that Hazaras regard as genocide,” said Professor Robert Crews of Stanford University. “Their capacity to rule Afghanistan more completely, in a more brutal way, is a major concern.”

Biden is bleeding political support; this morning’s ABC News poll finds his approval rating dropping from 50 percent to 44 percent, with 42 percent “now ‘strongly disapproving’ of his job performance.” Forty-four percent of the poll’s respondents think the withdrawal left the United States less safe from terrorism, compared to only 8 percent who say it made the country safer. As ABC News notes, “in polling data since the Harry Truman administration, only two presidents have had a lower approval rating at this point in their terms: Donald Trump, at 37% in August 2017, and Gerald Ford, also 37 percent, in March 1975.”

Biden wants to change the subject. And apparently, a lot of Americans are just fine with that.

ADDENDUM: If you’re wondering why the only person who has gotten fired in this mess is a lieutenant colonel who publicly criticized his own commanders, Reuters reports, “One Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any dismissal would be seen as a tacit admission that the president had erred in removing troops unconditionally from the South Asian nation.”

The administration’s top priority is not fixing the problem; it’s refusing to admit that there is a problem.

Media

American Media Turn Away from Afghanistan

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Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 30, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Victor Mancillal/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: Mark Thursday, September 2, down as the day that vast swaths of the U.S. national media turned their attention away from the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, and the Americans stranded there, and returned to familiar and safe news stories. The international news organizations still covering the country paint a picture that gets uglier and uglier. Meanwhile, Vermont offers a good example of why a rise in COVID-19 cases is not necessarily a public-health crisis.

America’s Biggest Media Institutions Turn Away from Afghanistan

Today is the day that the U.S. media begins its pivot away from Afghanistan. The front page of the New York Times features Hurricane Ida’s rains hitting New York City, and the Supreme Court’s declining to block Texas’s new abortion law. Those are the same two top stories at the Washington Post, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

The lead story at MSNBC is, “What Jim Jordan’s phone call to Trump on Jan. 6 reveals about the GOP.” A top item on Memeorandum this morning was the Times story, “Joe Rogan, A Podcasting Giant Who Has Been Dismissive of Vaccination, Has Covid.” After the Texas law, the second story on NPR’s home page is “These Students Grew Up Around Gun Violence. They Decided It Was Time To Talk About It.” The Los Angeles Times home page focuses on the South Lake Tahoe wildfire and the California gubernatorial-recall election; you have to go way down the page to find any news about Afghanistan. Nor are the more Washington- and politics-focused publications still focused on Afghanistan. As I write this, the top item on Axios is, “Private companies are changing who gets to go to space” and the top story on Politico is, “How Covid data gaps allowed Delta to proliferate.”

The hurricane’s damage to the New York City area, the Texas abortion law, the continuing effect of the pandemic, and the California wildfires and recall election are big stories, no doubt. But you can almost hear the sigh of relief in big-city newsrooms as the news cycle returns to “normal.” We’ve had about two weeks of brutal coverage for the Biden administration, from which any fair-minded observer could only conclude the withdrawal was a debacle and that Biden’s statements rarely matched the facts on the ground. For any Democrat, this was an intensely uncomfortable experience. But the people with the loudest voices in the national media clearly have concluded that the past two weeks have been enough. Keeping our attention on Afghanistan, and watching the Taliban’s brutal rule of death, might make our national shame intolerable. So it’s time to go back to familiar stories about how bad Jim Jordan is and Joe Rogan is Texas pro-lifers and gun owners are. The mostly urban and blue-state audience for these news organizations like hearing how much more sophisticated and morally superior they are to Republicans.

Because think about what we would have to look at if we kept our attention on Afghanistan . . .

What Is Actually Happening in Afghanistan

The Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. estimates it left behind the majority of Afghan interpreters and others who applied for visas to flee Afghanistan, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday.” An estimated 100,000 Afghans were eligible for relocation; on Friday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the U.S. had evacuated 7,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants to the U.S., suggesting that roughly 93,000 Afghans who should have been evacuated are now stranded in the country and hiding from the Taliban, or attempting to get to the border.

The Associated Press:

Even in the final days of Washington’s chaotic airlift in Afghanistan, Javed Habibi was getting phone calls from the U.S. government promising that the green card holder from Richmond, Virginia, his wife and their four daughters would not be left behind.

He was told to stay home and not worry, that they would be evacuated.

Late Monday, however, his heart sank as he heard that the final U.S. flights had left Kabul’s airport, followed by the blistering staccato sound of Taliban gunfire, celebrating what they saw as their victory over America.

“They lied to us,” Habibi said of the U.S. government. He is among hundreds of American citizens and green card holders stranded in the Afghan capital.

The AP also offers an update on the efforts to get the remaining members of the Afghanistan national girls’ soccer team out of the country: “There have been at least five failed attempts to rescue the girls in recent days, as they were moved around for their safety, McCreary and Muhtaj said. They were ‘footsteps from freedom’ when the suicide bombing occurred, Muhtaj said. Complicating the rescue effort is the size of the group — 133 people, including the 26 youth team members as well as adults and other children, including infants. Many don’t have passports or other necessary documentation to board flights from Kabul.”

The BBC:

“Asel and many of her international team-mates are in hiding. Asel isn’t her real name. In Kabul members of the Taliban have already come looking for Afghanistan’s women’s cricket team. “Every woman playing cricket or other sports is not safe right now,” she says. “The situation is very bad in Kabul.”

The Financial Times:

“The UN has warned that its food stocks in Afghanistan could run out by the end of the month, as the country braces for a looming economic meltdown and humanitarian crisis in the wake of the Taliban’s seizure of power. Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said most children younger than five faced severe malnutrition, while a third of the population was already going hungry. The international body warned that millions of Afghans were in danger of starvation.”

Also in the Financial Times:

The EU has “learnt the hard way” from the Afghanistan crisis about the need to build up its own defense capabilities and develop the “attributes of hard power”, Brussels’ commissioner in charge of defense industry issues has said. … [Thierry] Breton insisted the EU is not talking about replacing NATO, but rather complementing it in areas where the alliance is less active, adding that the US decision to pull out of Afghanistan had been ‘pretty difficult’ for some European states that were not consulted.

Canadian CTV:

Thousands of people destined for Canada remain in hiding from the Taliban in Kabul, waiting and hoping for a way out of Afghanistan.

“We left homes, you know, we left our province, our cities, and we’re just now stuck in Kabul, and the only hope that we have is that the Government of Canada will eventually do something for us,” an interpreter who worked for the Canadian Armed Forces told CTV National News.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau confirmed Tuesday that about 1,250 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their family members were left behind in Afghanistan.

“Stay put, because the situation at this point is uncertain,” he said. “We’re trying very hard to get the Taliban to agree to allow people to leave safely.”

That’s odd. President Biden assured us the Taliban were “cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, etcetera.”

These are news stories with life-and-death consequences, whose outcome is not yet determined, but apparently they just aren’t as interesting as Joe Rogan’s getting COVID-19.

Apparently, in America’s newsrooms, Afghanistan “was four days ago, five days ago!”

Vermont’s COVID-19 Cases Increase 23-Fold in Two Months

We shouldn’t get that worried about a sudden increase in cases of COVID-19 in a state, as opposed to a sudden increase in COVID-related hospitalizations or deaths.

Take Vermont, a small, largely rural state with just 643,503 people according to the most recent census — fewer people than the combined total of six sellout crowds at Michigan Stadium. By every measurement, this is a state that just doesn’t have a lot of people in it. The state capital of Montpelier is the least-populous state capital in the country; the state’s most-populous city, Burlington, has fewer people than any other state’s most-populous city.

Having an exceptionally small population makes it a lot easier for a state to get a high percentage of its residents vaccinated. Vermont has fully vaccinated almost 68 percent of its total population — which, remember, includes kids eleven and younger who can’t get vaccinated. 76.2 percent of all Vermonters have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, a figure that rises to an astounding 86.2 percent when you exclude those eleven and under.

And yet, in the past two months, the number of COVID-19 infections in Vermont has increased 23-fold. On July 6, Vermont had just 114 active cases of COVID-19 across the whole state. As of August 31, that number had risen to 2,668.

And even so, because so many Vermonters are vaccinated, the state is doing okay. During the same period between early July and the end of August that saw COVID cases in the state rise 23-fold, COVID-related deaths in the state increased by . . . 18. Only 29 people in Vermont are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and only eight are in the ICU.

In that same period, the number of cases in the U.S. as a whole nearly doubled. On July 6, the U.S. had 4.7 million active cases of COVID-19. As of August 31, that number had risen to 8.4 million. Back on July 6, the seven-day moving average of new hospitalizations for COVID-19 nationwide was a manageable 2,094. It has increased six-fold since, to 12,240.

If your sense of how the pandemic was proceeding was based entirely on case numbers and the rate of increase, you would think that Vermont was doing much, much worse than the country as a whole — when in fact the opposite is true. The next time you see a chart showing the number of cases increasing, or a color-coded map showing cases increasing by state or county . . . keep in mind that a COVID-19 case is not necessarily worth worrying about; hospitalizations and deaths are what matter most.

ADDENDUM: Don Bentley offers a powerful piece on the Fifth Stanza of the U.S. Army Ranger Creed, and describes past missions to recover the remains of fallen comrades:

Why risk the living for the dead? The answer is as simple as it is profound. Because the dead were Americans, and we don’t leave Americans behind.

Ever.

Except in Afghanistan, we just did.

National Security & Defense

The Americans Joe Biden Left Behind

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President Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 31, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

On the menu today: Gathering the stories of American citizens and green-card holders who are still trapped in Afghanistan, and a correction.

Who Are the Americans Still in Afghanistan?
The New York Times reports that “at least hundreds of U.S. citizens and potentially thousands of green card holders . . . are stranded in Afghanistan.”

For obvious reasons, news organizations are not eager to report the full names and locations of Americans and green-card holders in Afghanistan. There’s no need to make the Taliban’s work easier.

Right now, somewhere in Afghanistan, there’s a U.S. green-card holder who was living in Maryland earlier this year. He had worked with the Americans, done excellent work, and qualified for a green card. Green-card holders are granted authorization to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis. They’re often on the last step before applying for U.S. citizenship. As Charlie Cooke summarized, “it’s not a visa. It’s not a temporary permission slip. It’s permanent residency.” During the evacuation, the U.S. State Department said that the evacuations of citizens and of green-card holders were both top priorities, although green-card holders quickly disappeared from administration statements and statistics  thereafter.

This green-card holder is married and had six children; his wife’s parents did not want her moving with him to the U.S., so the husband and father moved to America and sent money back to support his family. In early August, this green-card holder could see the Taliban were advancing quickly, and he went back to Afghanistan to try to get his wife and six children out.

My reader, who has been trying to get this green-card holder out, had to tell him that the last U.S. flight had departed Kabul International Airport:

I told him about 5 a.m. Kabul time (on the 31st) that the U.S. military had left early during the night and would not be there today, the 31st, the last day,” my reader said. “I couldn’t decipher his reaction. It was either quiet rage or a silent crushing of his spirit. I read the report from [the State Department] that they will work diplomatic channels to get the rest of the ‘American citizens’ out. Legal permanent residents sound like they are screwed again. We shake our heads in amazement. The effort from State so far on his case and others has been a goose egg.  It’s a massive fail.

However, the U.S. State Department did send this green-card holder an e-mail with the helpful advice to “keep a low profile.” The e-mail recommended, “Make contingency plans to leave when it is safe to do so that do not rely on U.S. government assistance.” Over on the State Department website, under a section labeled, “What the Department of State Can and Can’t Do in a Crisis,” the department writes, “If there are no commercial options available, and if we have consular officers at the embassy or consulate, and if the conditions permit, we may help U.S. citizens identify possible transportation options” (emphasis in original).

The New York Times:

For more than a week, Samiullah Naderi, a U.S. legal permanent resident, waited days and nights with his wife and son outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, hoping to be let in so that they could leave on one of the dozens of daily flights out.

But on Monday, after being told that no more people would be allowed inside the airport gate, Mr. Naderi and his family returned to their apartment in Kabul with no clear path back to Philadelphia, where he has been living since last year.

Mr. Naderi, 23, is among at least hundreds of U.S. citizens and potentially thousands of green card holders who are stranded in Afghanistan.

About 6,000 Americans, the vast majority of them dual U.S.-Afghan citizens, were evacuated after Aug. 14, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday. The State Department has not provided numbers for how many permanent legal U.S. residents have also been evacuated or — as in Mr. Naderi’s case — failed to get on a flight out. Immigration and refugee advocacy groups estimated that thousands remained.

The New York Post:

A terrified American citizen who was an interpreter for the US military has said she is now stranded in Afghanistan — because no one told her the last flights were leaving Monday.

“I just found out that [the last US troops] left, and I was just silent for a while,” the interpreter, using the pseudonym Sara for safety, told CNN Monday night.

“I just can’t believe no one told me that this is the last flight.”

Sara said she is now more terrified than during any of her missions helping the military over 14 years.

“They left us to whom? To those people who wanted to always kill us?”

The Sacramento Bee:

At least 24 Sacramento-area students are confirmed to be stranded in Afghanistan as turmoil continues in Kabul, according to school officials. San Juan Unified school district staff said 24 students, down from the initial estimate of 150 students, had not returned to campuses since the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

A photo in the paper includes this caption:

Behshta, 21, holds a school picture showing her youngest sister Neda, 9, second from left in top row, on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, as she worries in their Arden Arcade bedroom whether his sisters will return from Afghanistan. She said the schools call every day asking when Neda, of Dyer-Kelly Elementary School and Sabrina, 15, of Encina High School, will return to class. The family explained that they are in hiding from the Taliban and can’t get to the airport.

From the Sacramento ABC News affiliate:

This three-year-old boy was born near Sacramento; his passport shows he is a US citizen, and he’s going through a harrowing ordeal right now, unable to escape Afghanistan. We’re hiding his identity and that of his father, a social worker, and other family members who are all US permanent residents, for fear of them being captured by the Taliban.

James Brown, Veterans Advocate, told the I-Team, “I received a call Sunday morning at about 6 a.m. from a friend of mine who’s an active duty Marine Corps officer stationed overseas, and he basically felt like his hands were tied and he needed some help getting this family out.”

…Armed with that letter, the boy, his father and several other family members approached the airport, but the Taliban attacked.

Brown said, “And they were stopped by a Taliban checkpoint, and they received physical beatings at the gate and they were pushed back where they had to flee and return to a safe house.”

A lot of these green-card holders are Afghan Americans who went back to see parents and other relatives still in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. It’s not hard to find people on social media who are quick to sneer that U.S. citizens and green-card holders should have left earlier. President Biden said in his speech yesterday, “Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan, with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan — all the way back as far as March.” Biden didn’t mention that on July 8, he himself had assured the world, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely” and declared, “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.”

Tim Miller put it succinctly:

A lot of [people] in my replies are happy to give Biden a pass for not recognizing that the Taliban would take over the country 16 days before 8/31 but unwilling to give Americans stuck there a pass for making the same miscalculation. I don’t find that argument very compelling, sorry.

And this is just discussing U.S. citizens and green card holders. The U.S. also left behind journalists working for the U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, thousands of American University of Afghanistan students and graduates, and an Afghan interpreter who helped rescue Joe Biden when his helicopter was forced to land in bad weather in 2008.

The Washington Post editorial board concludes:

As security worsened in the wake of a horrific terrorist attack at the airport last Thursday, and as U.S. troops prepared for their own departure on Monday, time and space ran out for these people. This is a moral disaster, one attributable not to the actions of military and diplomatic personnel in Kabul — who have been courageous and professional, in the face of deadly dangers — but to mistakes, strategic and tactical, by Mr. Biden and his administration.”

Yesterday in his remarks, President Biden saluted “the extraordinary success of this mission.”

ADDENDUM: CNN reports that the man videotaped hanging from a helicopter was not being hung by his neck, but was being suspended from a harness. It mentions this tweet of mine, feeling it is important to refute my assertion that the Taliban are not as “pragmatic and business-like” as General Frank McKenzie claimed. Oooh, you got me, guys. I’ll just have to find one of the hundreds of other examples of Taliban barbarism to make my point, like the fact that after promising an amnesty, the Taliban are executing members of the Afghan army.

National Security & Defense

Biden’s Promises Are Smashed to Pieces

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President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., August 29, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: yesterday’s decision to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan — despite the fact that American citizens were still stranded in the country, unable to get to the airport, and with many more green-card holders and Afghan allies now facing the brutality of Taliban rule. Meanwhile, President Biden gets snippy with a grieving father.

Afghanistan Proves That Biden’s Pledges and Promises Mean Nothing

A lot of people looked back at President Biden’s July 8 speech and remarks and ripped his prediction that, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” But the president made a lot of other pledges and promises that day:

The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart. . . .

We provided advanced weaponry. And we’re going to continue to provide funding and equipment. And we’ll ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force. . . .

In our meeting, I also assured [President] Ghani that U.S. support for the people of Afghanistan will endure. We will continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance, including speaking out for the rights of women and girls. . . .

I intend to maintain our diplomatic [presence] in Afghanistan. . . .

We’re going to continue to work for the release of detained Americans, including Mark — excuse me — Fre– Frerichs — I want to pronounce the name correctly; I mis- — I misspoke — so that he can return to his family safely.

We’re also going to continue to make sure that we take on the Afghan nationals who work side-by-side with U.S. forces, including interpreters and translators — since we’re no longer going to have military there after this; we’re not going to need them and they have no jobs — who are also going to be vital to our efforts so they — and they’ve been very vital — and so their families are not exposed to danger as well.

Our message to those women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.

Then, after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Biden sat for an interview with George Stephanopoulos and declared that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

All of those Biden promises are not just broken, they are smashed to pieces. Yesterday, General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, admitted that, “Look, there’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. . . . I believe our Department of State is going to work very hard to allow any American citizens that are left — and we think the citizens that were not brought out number in the low — very low hundreds.” Late yesterday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that, “We believe there are still a small number of Americans — under 200 and likely closer to 100 — who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave. We’re trying to determine exactly how many.” (This morning’s New York Times puts the number at “fewer than 300.”)

The drawdown was not made in a secure and orderly way. The “advanced weaponry” Biden discussed is in the hands of the Taliban. (A video appears to show the Taliban hanging a man from a captured Black Hawk helicopter.) Support for the Afghan Air Force had already been cut when Biden made those remarks. The U.S. is no longer able to provide civilians humanitarian assistance, at least not without greasing the palms of the Taliban. The U.S. ability to “speak out for the rights of women and girls” is meaningless when the Taliban instructed women to stay in their homes “until the Taliban fighters accept women in public spaces.” The U.S. no longer has any diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Mark Frerichs remains in Taliban custody. And the U.S. has abandoned tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who worked side-by-side with U.S. forces, including interpreters and translators.

Nothing the president promised or pledged mattered.

Nor is this complete withdrawal what Biden promised on the campaign trail:

Back in February 2020, then-candidate Biden declared on CBS News’ Face the Nation, “I think we should only have troops there to make sure that it’s impossible for the Taliban and excuse me- for ISIS or al-Qaeda to reestablish a foothold there, to be able to go from Afghanistan to the United States to attack the United States… a very small presence to be able to determine whether or not, I mean a small footprint — looks like several thousand people — to make sure that we have a place from which we can operate, if in fact, you find that there’s a re-amassing of Taliban capacity, excuse me, of al-Qaeda and or ISIS capacity to strike the United States like happened in 9/11.”

Osama bin Laden’s chief of security triumphantly returned to his home in eastern Afghanistan yesterday. Meanwhile, our ability to collect intelligence about terrorist groups in the country is seriously degraded:

“We’ve lost two things: we’ve lost our embassy — and the embassy of course is where we would have had intelligence collection ability — and we also lost our partner, which is the Afghanistan Intelligence Service,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who was the base chief in Afghanistan between 2011-2012, told The Daily Beast. “They run spies as well to penetrate terrorist groups. On the human side we really are degraded.”

The degraded state of intelligence operations could leave the U.S. flying blind at the worst possible time — just as terrorism threats resurge in the region, says Daniel Hoffman, the CIA’s former chief of the Near East division.

Hoffman added that “the last thing” the Biden administration would want to admit is that Americans were more at risk because the military had pulled out of Afghanistan. “But we are,” he said.

Presidential stubbornness and blind denial of inconvenient truths filters down through Biden’s administration. The Taliban spokesman felt the need to correct the assertion of the U.S. State Department that the Taliban and the Haqqani Network are separate entities. General McKenzie said yesterday that, “I will tell you, the Taliban had been very, very pragmatic and very business-like as we have approached this withdrawal.” Elsewhere, the United Nations reports that the Taliban are also performing “summary executions of civilians and combat members of the Afghan national security forces.” But I’m sure they’re executing civilians in a “very pragmatic and business-like manner.”

Yesterday, Blinken laid out the plan for future diplomatic work with the new rulers of Afghanistan:

Going forward, any engagement with a Taliban-led government in Kabul will be driven by one thing only: our vital national interests. If we can work with a new Afghan government in a way that helps secure those interests — including the safe return of Mark Frerichs, a U.S. citizen who has been held hostage in the region since early last year — and in a way that brings greater stability to the country and region and protects the gains of the past two decades, we will do it.

The Taliban broke their promise to not target civilians. “Attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects in violation of international humanitarian law; sites that were attacked included a maternity hospital and educational institutions.” They’ve broken their promises to keep freed prisoners off the battlefield. They’ve broken their promises to cut ties with al-Qaeda. They’ve broken their promises to respect women’s rights. They broke their promises to not threaten and assault journalists.

Why would anyone expect the Taliban to change? Why would anyone — much less America’s top diplomat — envision a way for the U.S. and the Taliban to work together?

ADDENDUM: Meanwhile, President Empathy struck again, while meeting with the families of the 13 servicemen killed in Afghanistan at Dover Air Force Base on Sunday:

So on that dreary morning [Mark Schmitz] and his ex-wife were approached by Biden after he’d talked to all the other families. But by his own account, Schmitz glared hard at the president, so Biden spent more time looking at his ex-wife, repeatedly invoking his own son, Beau, who died six years ago.

Schmitz did not want to hear about Beau, he wanted to talk about Jared. Eventually, the parents took out a photo to show to Biden. “I said, ‘Don’t you ever forget that name. Don’t you ever forget that face. Don’t you ever forget the names of the other 12,’ ” Schmitz said. “ ‘And take some time to learn their stories.’”

Biden did not seem to like that, Schmitz recalled, and he bristled, offering a blunt response: “I do know their stories.”

I got some grief for writing, “Something is wrong with the president” earlier this month. No, no, you’re right, guys, when the president of the United States is getting snippy with grieving parents at a memorial ceremony, he’s the pinnacle of mental, psychological, and physical health.

Politics & Policy

U.S. Intel’s Useless COVID-Origins Report

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U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies during a Senate Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., April 29, 2021. (Graeme Jennings/Reuters)

On the menu today: After 90 days and a direct request from the president, the U.S. intelligence community offers a page-and-a-half summary that tells the public nothing that it didn’t already know about COVID-19’s origins; the Washington Post reveals that the Taliban came to the U.S. military on August 15 asking for help with a problem; the gargantuan scale of how much U.S. military equipment is now in Taliban hands becomes clearer; and the early reports from Hurricane Ida include devastating damage to buildings and significant loss of power, but thankfully, so far, only one life lost.

The U.S. Intelligence Community Offers a Useless Report on COVID-19’s Origins

Late Friday, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines released a page-and-a-half summary of the intelligence community’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19, offering almost nothing new to what was publicly known about the start of the pandemic. The summary offered less information than most lengthy magazine pieces, offering the obvious and unhelpful conclusion that “all agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and laboratory-associated incident.”

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the released two-page intelligence report is that it simply doesn’t mention or address several key points that have appeared in the news in the past few months, attributed to sources within the U.S. intelligence community.

The Wall Street Journal, May 23:

Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report that could add weight to growing calls for a fuller probe of whether the Covid-19 virus may have escaped from the laboratory.

The details of the reporting go beyond a State Department fact sheet, issued during the final days of the Trump administration, which said that several researchers at the lab, a center for the study of coronaviruses and other pathogens, became sick in autumn 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.”

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, speaking to former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss on her podcast, August 23:

The unreleased intelligence is the stuff that, if you read John Ratcliffe’s op-ed recently, that he is talking about. What he wrote is that the secret intelligence, the stuff that they didn’t release, it’s even more damning, has lots of specifics about the lab. . . . What it says is that the symptoms that these sick researchers had were not your everyday flu symptoms. In other words, they were COVID specific symptoms necessarily and these include no smell and what are called ground-glass opacities in the lungs. . . . That doesn’t medically prove that they had COVID, but that’s some pretty specific symptoms.

Rogin went on to add that the researchers who got sick “were the guys working at the bat coronavirus lab.”

Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in a Fox News op-ed, August 2:

I had access to all of the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence related to the pandemic. My informed opinion is that the lab leak theory isn’t just a “possibility,” at the very least it is more like a probability, if not very close to a certainty.

More than 18 months after the virus first leaked into the world, I still have not seen a single shred of scientific evidence or intelligence that the virus outbreak was a naturally occurring “spillover” that jumped from an animal to a human.

Conversely, although the CCP has gone to great lengths to ensure there is no “smoking gun,” every piece of evidence I have seen points to the pandemic’s origin being a leak out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Quite simply, the lab leak theory is the only one supported by science, intelligence and common sense.

. . . The CCP has not provided any exculpatory evidence in a crime that had devastating impacts on nearly every person on earth because, in short, they can’t.

The virus found in nature that is closest to SARS-CoV-2 — identified as RaTG13 — was found in a copper mineshaft in Tongguan, Mojiang, Yunnan Province, China — which is 1,140 miles away from Wuhan. Back in 2012, six miners who had been hired to clean the mineshaft grew ill with a cough and fever, difficulty breathing, aching limbs, heavy and bloody mucus and saliva, and headaches — symptoms of a viral respiratory infection that is like the effects of COVID-19. Three of the miners died from their infections. In 2012 and 2013, researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology collected many samples of new bat viruses from this mineshaft. The city of Wuhan is well beyond the natural habitat or migratory patterns of the horseshoe bats found in that mine. The only realistic potential source of RaTG13 in the city is the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Does the U.S. intelligence community have reliable information indicating that three WIV researchers who had been working on novel coronaviruses in bats got sick in November 2019, required hospitalization, and suffering loss of the sense of smell and ground-glass opacities in the lungs, shortly before December 1, the date of the onset of symptoms in the first publicly verified case of COVID-19?

If the answer is no, and the U.S. government does not have this information, why not say so?

If the answer is yes, and the U.S. government does have this information, how can someone look at that sequence of events and still think it is all a giant coincidence?

Washington Post: On August 15, the Taliban Came to the U.S. with a ‘Problem’

The Washington Post offers a long article about the fall of Kabul that gives readers this jaw-dropping detail about a meeting on August 15:

In a hastily arranged in-person meeting, senior U.S. military leaders in Doha — including McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command — spoke with Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban’s political wing.

“We have a problem,” Baradar said, according to the U.S. official. “We have two options to deal with it: You [the United States military] take responsibility for securing Kabul or you have to allow us to do it.”

Throughout the day, Biden had remained resolute in his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan. The collapse of the Afghan government hadn’t changed his mind.

McKenzie, aware of those orders, told Baradar that the U.S. mission was only to evacuate American citizens, Afghan allies and others at risk. The United States, he told Baradar, needed the airport to do that.

On the spot, an understanding was reached, according to two other U.S. officials: The United States could have the airport until Aug. 31. But the Taliban would control the city.

In other words, the U.S. had some leverage at that moment. Not as much as we would’ve liked, obviously, but the Taliban were coming to us with a problem and were ready to negotiate. The Taliban knew they were going to control Kabul eventually; from this report, they were willing to be patient to avoid a messy final battle. The U.S. could have kept a larger portion of the city secure until August 31; perhaps the Taliban would have stayed out of Kabul until September. This entire mess we’re seeing, with the Taliban beating people in the streets and turning our Afghans allies away at checkpoints outside the airport, could have been avoided.

This weekend, more than 600 students, their relatives, and staff of American University of Afghanistan received an email saying that, “I regret to inform you that the high command at HKIA in the airport has announced there will be no more rescue flights.”

We regularly encounter accounts from the ground that do not match the happy talk that comes from the people behind the lecterns at the Pentagon and White House. People who have every right to get through those check points, gates, and onto those flights are being blocked by the Taliban. Innocent people are being left in that hellhole to get tortured and killed. And they’re receiving “I regret to inform you” emails.

U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson tweeted out, “This is a high-risk operation. Claims that American citizens have been turned away or denied access to HKIA by Embassy staff or US Forces are false.” But his statement doesn’t say anything about U.S. green-card holders or Afghans who have Special Immigrant Visas. It’s as if as far as the administration is concerned, green-card holders don’t exist.

Meanwhile, the Taliban now has access to 75,000 U.S.-made military vehicles, 200 airplanes and helicopters and 600,000 small arms and light weapons, night-vision goggles, body armor, medical supplies, and the biometric data of the Afghans who have assisted soldiers over the past 20 years. The Taliban have now seized one of the greatest caches of advanced military equipment ever. If we ever must fight them again, we will be fighting an enemy that is using our own weapons against us.

On the home page today, Bing West has a haunting review of 20 years of U.S. policy decisions in Afghanistan. No president got this right, and no president wanted to confront the hard realities of that faraway country. But this observation is just crushing:

President Biden has claimed that the ongoing evacuation occurred because the Afghan army ran away instead of fighting. In truth, the Afghan soldiers did fight, suffering 60,000 killed in the war. Their talisman was the American military. No matter how tough the conditions, somehow an American voice crackled over the radio, followed by thunder from the air. Those few Americans were the steel rods in the concrete. When that steel was pulled out, the concrete crumbled. The spirit of the Afghan army was broken.

ADDENDUM: As of this writing, there is only one death attributed to Hurricane Ida — and for New Orleans taking a direct hit from a just-shy-of-a-Category-5 hurricane, that’s not too bad. Ida has been downgraded to a tropical storm over Mississippi, with the National Weather Service warning that, “dangerous storm surges, damaging winds, and flash flooding continue over portions of southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi.” Maybe New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast region learned the hard lessons of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But I notice New Orleans did not order a mandatory evacuation, or even contraflow the highways to make it easier for people to head north, away from the coast.

National Security & Defense

State Department Leaving Green-Card Holders Behind in Afghanistan?

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A U.S. Air Force Security Forces Raven aboard a C-17 in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at the Kabul airport, August 24, 2021 (U.S. Air Force / Master Sergeant Donald R. Allen / Reuters)

On the menu today: An ominous account suggests that the U.S. State Department is no longer working on evacuating U.S. green-card holders from Afghanistan; the illogic of relying on the Taliban to prevent deadly terrorist attacks from ISIS-K; and the president appears to lie about why the U.S. abandoned Bagram Air Base.

U.S. State Department: ‘Only U.S. Citizens’ Prioritized for Evacuation

My reader who is trying to get his former Afghan employees out of the country says that the U.S. State Department is now stating that its only priority is evacuating U.S. citizens — not U.S. green-card holders or lawful permanent residents.

My reader’s colleague, attempting to get a lawful permanent resident who is marked for death by the Taliban out of the country, says he was told by late Thursday night by a State Department operator that, “I need to move on to my next call, sir. Goodbye.” When his colleague interjected, “What about permanent residents?” the State Department operator responded, “only U.S. citizens.”

If that operator’s statement reflects a change in U.S. policy, it is one that the department is hiding from the public. The website of the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan still states: “The Department of State’s efforts are devoted to evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). Our first priority is U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) of the United States, along with eligible family members.”

My reader shared with me this particular green-card holder’s name, date of birth, green-card number, Afghan passport number, family members, U.S. and Afghan phone numbers, and two email accounts. The green-card holder and his family are hiding in two apartments in a particular neighborhood near the airport, and they describe their situation as “not safe.”

As my reader put it, “He’s as American as you or me.” (See here, here, here, and here for background on this reader.)

Yesterday, our Charlie Cooke, a former green-card holder, declared that:

When one obtains a green card, one is obtaining permission to live in the United States for the rest of one’s life. It’s not a visa. It’s not a temporary permission slip. It’s permanent residency. And, as Americans, we have a duty to bring the people we have welcomed to America forever back to where they belong: home.

That appears to no longer be the policy of this administration.

How Much Does the Taliban Really Want to Stop Attacks by ISIS-K?

I’ll take it on faith from U.S. counterterrorism experts that the Taliban and ISIS-K see each other as rivals and enemies. (The K stands for Khorosan, meaning a region that includes Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.)

But even if the Taliban and ISIS-K are enemies, I wonder just how motivated the Taliban is to prevent ISIS-K from blowing up American soldiers, American civilians, and crowds of Afghans who worked with the Americans desperately trying to get out of the country. The Taliban put the Haqqani Network in charge of Kabul; the Haqqani Network is the deadliest and most dangerous terrorist faction within their ranks and has been a designated terrorist group since 2012. The deliberate U.S. policy was to rely on a terrorist group (the Taliban) who subcontracted to another terrorist group (the Haqqani Network) to protect our people from another terrorist group (ISIS-K). It appears to be terrorist groups all the way down.

We keep getting told that preventing terrorist attacks targeting Americans is in the Taliban’s interest. But just what did the Taliban lose in yesterday’s deadly attacks outside Kabul International Airport? Maybe a little prestige or a perception of being in control? Certainly, the Taliban didn’t lose nearly as much as the U.S. or Afghan people did.

Even if the Taliban is motivated to keep ISIS from blowing up crowds of Americans and pro-American Afghans, it also seems fair to wonder how competent the Taliban is at a task such as sniffing out suicide bombers and terrorist plots. Few if any of their members are investigators or experienced in counterterrorism. The Taliban’s own spokesman said Afghan women should stay in their homes, as their soldiers “are not trained” to be around women. They’re forcibly abducting teenage girls to be “brides” which is their term for sex slaves. They’re reportedly running around having sex with corpses. Taliban forces near the airport are beating and whipping journalists, killing gays and chopping up the bodies, and beating and abusing United Nations employees. The Taliban sure are tough when they’re picking on somebody who’s defenseless.

Any military force that cannot be trusted to not have sex with corpses does not seem like a reliable option to establish a secure perimeter and keep ISIS terrorists out.

Why would any U.S. policymaker agree to give the Taliban a list of names of American citizens, green-card holders, and Afghan allies to grant entry into the militant-controlled outer perimeter of the city’s airport? As one defense official told Politico, “Basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list.”

For months, journalists have been asking President Biden if he trusted the Taliban — because if it was possible that a U.S. withdrawal would result in the Taliban running the country again, the U.S. would get stuck with an untrustworthy hostile regime running the country. America would face the same problem it started with on the afternoon of September 11, a militant Islamist regime that offered a home to terrorist groups.

Biden keeps insisting he doesn’t trust the Taliban, but he keeps making policy decisions as if he’s convinced that this time, the Taliban will be reasonable.

Back on July 8:

Q: Mr. President, will you amplify that question, please? Will you amplify your answer, please — why you don’t trust the Taliban?

THE PRESIDENT: It’s a — it’s a silly question. Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.

But by the time of his Stephanopolous interview last week, Biden was characterizing the Taliban as cooperating. “Look, one of the things we didn’t know is what the Taliban would do in terms of trying to keep people from getting out, what they would do. What are they doing now? They’re cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, et cetera.”

At the time of that interview, the Taliban were not always allowing American personnel to get out.

And even yesterday, after ISIS-K had managed to get through any Taliban security perimeter twice, President Biden insisted that relying on the Taliban for the outer perimeter security was the right call:

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. There has been some criticism, even from people in your party, about the dependence on the Taliban to secure the perimeter of the airport. Do you feel like there was a mistake made in that regard?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t. Look, I think General McKenzie handled this question very well. The fact is that we’re in a situation — we inherited a situation, particularly since, as we all know, that the Afghan military collapsed 11 days before — in 11 days — that it is in the interest of, as Mackenzie said, in the interest of the Taliban that, in fact, ISIS-K does not metastasize beyond what it is, number one. And number two, it’s in their interest that we are able to leave on time, on target.

Is it? Just how certain are we that we know how the Taliban leadership defines their best interest? Isn’t it conceivable that the Taliban, or some factions within the group, want to maximize U.S. casualties and American humiliation in the final days? Particularly if ISIS-K gets the blame?

Even if you’re absolutely convinced that the Taliban is motivated to protect those crowds outside the airport gates, after yesterday, why on earth would any American official think the Taliban are capable of protecting those crowds outside the airport gates? Why is the plan for today to just hope that the Taliban do a better job than they did yesterday?

Biden Blames the Military for Abandoning Bagram

My colleague Mark Wright noticed that Biden’s explanation for abandoning Bagram Air Base — “They concluded, the military, that Bagram was not much value added” — does not match what General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said just last week:

If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had or stayed the same or exceeded what we had. So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made . . . going out of HKIA — was estimated to be the better tactical solution in accordance with the mission set we were given and in accordance with getting the troops down to about 600, 700 number.

In other words, the administration had decided that the Pentagon could only keep 600 to 700 troops in the country, forcing them to abandon either Bagram Air Base or Kabul International Airport. Having forced the U.S. military to take a weaker position, Biden now blames the military for recommending the option he demanded.

The president is either a pathological liar, or something is wrong with him.

ADDENDUM: Thank you for continuing to read the Morning Jolt through what has become one of the darkest and most depressing weeks in recent history. Writing about Afghans who worked for the U.S. being beaten and executed by the Taliban in the town square makes covering a highly contagious virus that is killing hundreds of Americans each day look light-hearted and reassuring. This is also the kind of week when people like me receive a lot of messages on social media like, “You wanted to see American casualties. You wanted America to fail so you could blame Biden” when we report that there are American casualties. These messages often come from the same people who have been high-fiving each other every time the Florida coronavirus death toll goes up.

World

Biden Abandons Our Allies: What It’s Really Like on the Ground in Kabul

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U.S. Marines and Norwegian coalition forces assist with security at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 20, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sergeant Victor Mancilla/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: I’m going to warn you ahead of time, I’ve heard from my reader trying to get his former Afghan employees out of the country, and the news is very bad. Don’t let the happy talk coming from well-dressed officials behind lecterns in Washington fool you. The situation on the ground is chaotic and dangerous, and the outlook for hundreds of thousands of Afghans is about as grim as it gets.

Biden Chooses to Abandon our Afghan Allies

This morning, the New York Times reports that, “at least 250,000 Afghans who may be eligible for expedited American visas remain in Afghanistan.” But that’s a big number, an abstraction too big to get our heads around.

One of my readers has been trying to get his former Afghan employees out of the country, as they are eligible for expedited visas under the State Department’s Priority 2 program. (See here, here, and here for background.) I hadn’t heard from him in a day or two and felt worried. Unfortunately, the news is about as bad as it gets.

“My phone is melting, and my inbox is jammed, from grown Afghan men pleading, crying to get out with their wives and children,” my reader begins:

All of them used to work for our company. They are engineers, electricians, lab technicians, urban planners, CAD drafters, surveyors, concrete masons, welders — all skilled technical and professional people who enjoyed what we would consider a solid middle-class life. Some went on to become lecturers at university. These aren’t herders and farmers — they are civilized, educated, middle class tradesman and professionals who trusted their government to maintain the safety and security of the nation. Their average age of the parents is late thirties. Their average family size is seven. The youngest child among them is 10 days old. Inside of a month, their lives are uprooted by bloodthirsty barbarians. They are hunted because they helped the Americans.

One of our families has been waiting in the Entry Control Point for four days straight – living in trash and filth, with no shelter, jammed among thousands of others. The parents know full well what awaits if they are fortunate to get out. They are willing to live the life of a refugee in a camp near a military installation. Essentially a one room United Nations Refugee Center shack, or group expeditionary tents, no indoor plumbing, no kitchen. They share public toilets and showers and live in a fenced compound in a sea of other shacks or tents surrounded by gravel — for at least 12-18 months while they wait for the State Department to process their visas. They are willing to walk away from their middle-class comforts and live in refugee camps for well over a year, possibly two, for the freedom and liberty of the United States. Amanullah asked me yesterday if I could get him to Mexico so he could walk to Texas so he wouldn’t have to live in a refugee camp. They know.

Don’t let anyone claim that Afghans who worked for America or international organizations will be fine.

“Here’s a kick in the gut,” my reader continues. “Fawad — not his real name — called me crying last night after midnight. His brother-in-law was killed by the Taliban earlier that day. He had worked for an American contractor in Zabul [a southern province considered part of the Taliban’s heartland]. He was beaten in the street and then shot in the head so the villagers could see.”

‘It’s Like They’re Trying to Escape a Burning Building and All the Doors Are Locked’

It gets worse. You’ve probably noticed the administration keeps specifying “American citizens” in its numbers. This is a way to not include U.S. green-card holders, who are authorized to live and work in the U.S. permanently. Green-card holders can apply for citizenship after three to five years and enjoy almost all the benefits of American citizenship except voting. According to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, when it comes to the evacuation, citizens and lawful permanent residents are equal priorities: “The Department of State’s efforts are devoted to evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). Our first priority is U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) of the United States, along with eligible family members.”

Lawful American permanent residents are going to get left behind.

My reader continues:

While everyone is a high priority on my desk — the toughest one is this. One of our schedulers — a computer software whiz — got his green card and permanent U.S. residency back in 2017. His Afghan parents disapproved and would not let him take his wife and six children to America, but his wife told him to go anyway and send money back home. He did — lots of it. He works for a large energy company on the east coast and makes a good living. In early July, he realized the country was doomed. He flew back to Afghanistan to get his wife and kids. They needed visas to get out. He tried to navigate the interview and paperwork zoo at the U.S. embassy in Kabul — but it was taking forever, and then the embassy closed the visa window. He is now stuck. He can’t get out with his family, and he won’t leave without them. Three hours ago, he texted me. He said he tried to get to the north side of the airport. He ducked around Taliban checkpoints and couldn’t even get close. He said the road is mobbed with “thousands and thousands of Afghans. It’s like they’re trying to escape a burning building and all the doors are locked.” He said there is no way he could get his children through the mob to get to the gate. We are formulating plans to have him drive to Tajikistan or Pakistan for an airlift. He said, bitterly, if only I could get them to Mexico.

You may have seen a misleading headline in The Hill — do they have any other kind? — declaring, “Dozens of California students, parents stranded in Afghanistan after summer trip abroad.” From that headline, you might think it was a school-organized trip and picturing some sort of naïve, overgrown hippies from Marin County or someplace, seeking a cultural-exchange program with the Taliban.

In fact, these are Afghan-American families from El Cajon, outside of San Diego, who traveled back to Afghanistan on summer break to see family members back in the old country — who have made similar trips in past years:

Cajon Valley Superintendent David Miyashiro and Mike Serban, the district’s director of Family And Community Engagement (FACE), said the children range from preschoolers to high school students. They said the students went there on summer break with their families to visit extended family members.

“We have a long summer break, and nobody knew the extent of what was going to happen, nobody knew what was coming,” Serban said. “Their extended family is in Afghanistan, and they wanted to see their family. They went back, likely before the troops left, so they could say hello or goodbye one more time. What wouldn’t you do to go see your family one more time, let alone know you have only a window of time to go see them?”

Miyashiro said that the families involved are on special Visas for U.S. military service and that the Department of Defense considers them “allies.” He said the district was able to provide information on the families and that government officials are working to locate the children and their families. He said he was encouraged by the help.

Last night brought a little good news, as at least one of the families had made it safely back to the U.S., leaving five families with 19 children missing:

District officials have reached out to US Rep. Darrell Issa for help getting the affected families back to the United States.

Issa and his staff “are aware of the location of several American citizens,” and are in direct and consistent contact with them, said Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesperson for the representative.

“They are scared, stranded and trapped in the Kabul area,” Wilcox said in a statement. “So far, they’ve been unable to reach the airport. I know the President and his Press Secretary have previously said this isn’t happening, but that’s dead wrong.”

Kids who were in San Diego-area public schools this spring are now stuck behind Taliban lines.

I first heard from this reader during this crisis when his emails to the State Department’s Priority 2 program started bouncing back because the email’s inbox was full. His emails are no longer bouncing back, but there’s no sign that sending employment information, as the State Department required, is doing any good. “The State Department P2 program is a black hole. Not one of our referrals has been replied to yet. It feels like we’re calling in for an air strike and getting a busy signal.”

Somehow, my reader is finding it within himself to resist despair, at least for now. “More tomorrow or the next day. We won’t give up like some people.”

ADDENDUM: Keep this in mind when the president says our mission is complete, and that al-Qaeda is gone:

With no U.S. troops or reliable partners left, jails emptied of militants and the Taliban in control, doubts are mounting within President Joe Biden’s administration over Washington’s ability to stem a resurgence of al Qaeda and other extremists in Afghanistan, six current and former U.S. officials told Reuters. . . . Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism until January, estimated it would now take al Qaeda six months to reconstitute the ability to conduct external operations.

We are recreating the conditions that forced us to invade Afghanistan in the first place.

National Security & Defense

The Afghanistan Catastrophe Is an American Humiliation

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A U.S. Marine provides a Meal Ready-to-Eat (MRE) to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 21, 2021. (Marine Corps/Sergeant Samuel Ruiz/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: The situation in Afghanistan is so catastrophic, with so many dire and far-reaching ramifications — humanitarian ramifications, geopolitical ramifications, national-security ramifications — that it will take this entire newsletter to lay it all out.

Our President Chose National Humiliation

Before the country settles into the blame game, let’s get a clear perspective on where we stand.

Per the Washington Post editorial board: “The Taliban set up a new blockade of the airport road in Kabul to prevent more Afghans from leaving. If Mr. Biden opposes that, he did not say so in his speech.” As Rich has observed, the president no longer criticizes the Taliban, because his decisions have left him entirely at the mercy of one of the most barbaric and brutal forces in the world.

According to the New York Times:

U.S. officials believe that thousands of Americans remain in Afghanistan, including some far beyond Kabul, without a safe or fast way to get to the airport. Tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government over the last 20 years, and are eligible for special visas, are desperate to leave.

And refugee and resettlement experts estimate that at least 300,000 Afghans are in imminent danger of being targeted by the Taliban for associating with Americans and U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. [Emphasis added.]

Hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom helped the U.S., its allies, and international NGOs, are being left behind to be tortured and executed by the Taliban.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Private rescue efforts are facing growing obstacles this week, just as the urgency grows. Chartered planes are flying out of Kabul with hundreds of empty seats. New Taliban checkpoints on the road to Pakistan have made driving out of the country increasingly risky. Confusing bureaucratic hurdles have prevented countless people from leaving Afghanistan.

. . . “It’s a combination of tragic, surreal and apocalyptic,” said Stacia George, director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, who has been working round-the-clock to get people out of Kabul. “It’s so frustrating to get high-risk people up to the gate and have them risking their lives to go there and you still can’t get them through. It’s a disaster in slow- and fast-motion.”

From NBC News:

It’s becoming clear that thousands of the Afghans who helped the U.S. won’t be evacuated, a scenario that has engendered deep frustration inside U.S. national security agencies.

“People are furious and disgusted,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who declined to be quoted by name. A defense official said he grew nauseated as he considered how many Afghan allies would be left behind.

At the CIA, “officers feel a real sense of obligation, moral obligation and personal obligation” to the Afghans they supported and trained, said former CIA Director John Brennan, an NBC News national security consultant.

. . . officials at non-governmental organizations that have operated in Afghanistan, which have raised millions of dollars from Americans concerned about the fate of Afghans, are growing frustrated with the Biden administration. A leader of an NGO said: “There’s been an outpouring. It’s inspiring, but on the other hand, it is a damning reflection on the failure of the U.S. that private citizens are having to step in to do what the government with all its billions and trillions has failed to do.”

The administration has gift-wrapped the greatest propaganda gift imaginable to anti-American forces all around the world. Bloomberg News stated that: “It’s those who helped the Stars and Stripes reach its ill-thought-out goals that slide off the sides of the departing planes as their nails give out,” Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the Russian government propaganda network RT, wrote on her Telegram channel. “The lesson: Do not help the Stars and Stripes. It’ll use you, then abandon you.”

The president justified his decision by insisting that “al-Qaeda is gone,” an assessment that his own Pentagon and State Department disputed.

From CNBC:

Afghanistan could once again become a “hotbed” for terrorism, providing sanctuary for extremists, experts warned.

The Taliban have “never broken” their alliance with al-Qaeda over the last two decades despite military pressure and two years of negotiations in Qatar, according to Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security.

A United Nations report this year reached a similar conclusion: It said the Taliban and al-Qaeda “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” The Taliban previously refuted those claims.

(CNBC uses the term “refuted,” when I think they meant “disputed.”)

Robin Wright, writing in The New Yorker:

Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Inside Terrorism,” was blunter. “The situation is more dangerous in 2021 than it was in 1999 and 2000,” he told me. “We’re in a much weakened position now. We’ve learned so little.” The Taliban takeover is the biggest boost to Al Qaeda since 9/11 and a global game changer for jihadism generally, Rita Katz, the executive director of the Site Intelligence Group, a leading tracker of extremist activity worldwide, told me. There is a “universal recognition” that Al Qaeda can now “reinvest” in Afghanistan as a safe haven, Katz said. Jihadism effectively has a new homeland, the first since the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in March, 2019. “It foreshadows a new future that sadly couldn’t have been further from what we would hope for after twenty years of war,” she said. It’s a boon for Al Qaeda and its franchises, which now stretch from Burkina Faso in West Africa to Bangladesh in South Asia. “Militants from across the world — whether they be regionally focussd Islamists or globally focused jihadists — will surely seek to enter Afghanistan’s porous borders,” Katz added.

A good contrast to the “America is back!” rhetoric comes from this account of U.S. treatment of allies in Politico Europe:

G7 foreign ministers agreed on the need for a joint approach to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan even as the U.S. appeared reluctant to engage with allies in the wake of its withdrawal from the country.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab chaired a video call with his counterparts from the grouping of the world’s wealthiest nations on Thursday, at which they resolved to cooperate in an effort to provide aid and prevent further loss of life.

No specific measures were announced and no update was given on plans for a call between G7 leaders next week.

A U.K. government official claimed the U.S. had to be “bounced” into agreeing to the call after largely ignoring allies’ attempts to discuss Afghanistan over the last few weeks led by France and the U.K., which currently holds the G7 presidency. [Emphasis added.]

Representative Mikie Sherrill (D., N.J.) , a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, said, “I think it is critically important we ensure our military has the tools it needs to complete the mission. I do not believe that this can be accomplished by August 31st, and I have requested that the SECDEF and SECSTATE encourage the President in the strongest terms possible to reconsider that deadline.”

Barnett Rubin, President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, wrote in the Washington Post:

An internal document of the World Food Program warns that, “A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes. Conflict combined with drought and covid-19 is pushing the people of Afghanistan into a humanitarian catastrophe.”

. . . According to the WFP document, the price of wheat, the main staple food, is now 24 percent above the five-year average, and sustained instability or devaluation of the currency will result in even higher food prices, assuring that hunger will spread. In the same internal document, WFP says that it needs $200 million immediately to pre-position food stocks by October to assist 9 million Afghans per month over the winter.

The country’s health system is collapsing. One official still at his post in Kabul, who spoke to me anonymously because he was not authorized to do so, told me: “We don’t have medicine, consumables and required basic equipment in the government-run hospitals. Staff salaries are pending for the last three months at least.” And this is taking place while Afghanistan is suffering from a crippling third wave of covid-19, the true dimensions of which are unknown.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, “Fearing a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, Greece has completed building a 40-km long wall and installed a hi-tech surveillance system on its border with Turkey to avoid the influx of Afghan migrants following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The development comes amid apprehensions about heavy migration of Afghan citizens into Greece via Turkey, and then further into Europe.”

If you think that anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, nativist, nationalist, and populist political movements in Europe are destabilizing or bad for American interests, then the calamitous developments in Afghanistan today are going to create worse problems tomorrow.

NBC News. John Brennan. The Carter Center. The New York Times. The New Yorker. CNBC. The Washington Post editorial board. The United Nations. Congressional Democrats. Former Obama administration officials. International nonprofit groups. None of those figures or institutions can be characterized as right-wing or reflexive foes of President Biden. These blistering assessments of the situation in Afghanistan, and the administration decisions that led to it, are not coming from Donald Trump, or Sean Hannity, or Alex Jones.

There is no conservative plot to make Joe Biden look bad at this moment; it would be superfluous and couldn’t do nearly as good a job of that as he’s doing himself.

Yesterday, before mentioning Afghanistan, President Biden began by saying he wanted to “discuss the progress we’re making on the Build Back Better agenda here at home.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki, fresh off insisting that Americans were not stranded in Afghanistan, declared that, “I would not say that [the mission] is anything but a success.”

And Politico reports that, “While it’s sparked accusations that the president’s team is trying to divert attention away from a crisis of its own creation, Biden’s defenders stress that, for now at least, he deserves to crow.” The headline? “White House to media: We want our props on Afghanistan.”

The Biden team thinks it isn’t getting enough credit for how good the current situation is.

ADDENDUM: In a development that can only surprise you if you work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the American people are not pleased with what they’re seeing. USA Today write that:

For President Joe Biden, the cost of the war’s chaotic end has been steep. His overall job approval rating now stands at 41 percent who approve versus 55 percent who disapprove — a big drop in the closely watched barometer of political health. Until last week, national polls generally showed his approval rating above 50 percent. Now, while he has held the backing of 87 percent of Democrats, only 32 percent of independents say he’s doing a good job.

World

U.S. Intelligence Community: Sorry, COVID-19’s Origin Remains a Mystery

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Outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: The U.S. intelligence community’s review into the origins of COVID-19 is due to be presented to the president today, and the early indication is that our best spies, analysts, and experts are shrugging and concluding they can’t clear up much. But the circumstantial evidence pointing to a lab leak is now overwhelming.

U.S. Intelligence Drops the COVID Ball Again

Gee, thanks a lot, U.S. intelligence community:

President Joe Biden is set to be briefed on the U.S. intelligence community’s investigation into how COVID-19 started, with the report likely to disappoint in delivering clear answers about the deadly pandemic’s origin in China.

. . . Three U.S. government officials and a fourth person familiar with the scope of the investigation said they did not expect the review to lead to firm conclusions after China stymied earlier international efforts to gather key information on the ground.

Instead, one official said the report would likely point to additional lines of inquiry that officials could pursue, including demands of China that are likely to further ratchet up tensions with Beijing at a time when the country’s ties with Washington are at their lowest point in decades.

“It’s basically impossible to have a proper investigation if one of the main parties doesn’t want to cooperate,” said Thomas Wright, Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-author of “Aftershocks,” a book about the pandemic with Biden’s Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. “We need to proceed as if both hypotheses are true.”

Having a proper investigation of topics when the main party involved doesn’t want to cooperate is . . . why we have an intelligence community, isn’t it? Were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan cooperative with the old OSS? Was the Soviet Union cooperative about its defense capabilities, nuclear arsenal, and long-term strategies? Were al-Qaeda and ISIS cooperative with investigations of what terror attacks each was plotting?

That Reuters report linked above does note that, “People familiar with intelligence reporting have said that there has been little corroboration over recent months that the virus had spread widely and naturally amongst wild animals.”

Back in June, I noted that Liang Wannian, the Chinese head of the joint Chinese–WHO effort, recently stated that Chinese authorities “tested 50,000 animal specimens, including 1,100 bats in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. But no luck: a matching virus still hasn’t been found.”

A naturally occurring, highly contagious animal virus that can’t be found in any animals is quite odd. During the first SARS outbreak in 2003, the WHO issued a global alert on March 12; by May 23, Chinese researchers announced that they had found a virus similar to the one that caused SARS in several wild-animal species for sale at a market in southern China. In the original SARS, the first cases included chefs and people handling animals, and subsequent testing found that more people in such professions had antibodies to the virus, too. By 2017, virologists identified a single population of horseshoe bats in a remote cave in Yunnan Province, China, that had virus strains with all the genetic building blocks of the one that jumped to humans in 2002. (That investigation was led by “Bat Woman” Shi Zheng-Li and Cui Jie of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.)

The virus found in nature that is closest to SARS-CoV-2 was found in a copper mineshaft in Tongguan, Mojiang, Yunnan Province, China. In 2012, three of six miners were killed by viral respiratory infections after working in the shaft. Wuhan is about 1,140 miles away from the mineshaft, a 21-hour drive by car, roughly the distance from New Orleans to New York City. The city of Wuhan is well beyond the natural habitat and natural migration patterns of bats who are most likely to carry viruses such as this one. If SARS-CoV-2 were a naturally occurring virus, we would expect to find the first cases where the bats live, in Yunnan Province. But according to Chinese health officials, the first COVID-19 patient in Yunnan Province was diagnosed on January 21, 2020, well after the outbreak had started raging in Wuhan.

In fact, those who live closest to the bats in Yunnan Province carry surprisingly little biological evidence of being infected with bat viruses. In 2015, researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology traveled to southern Yunnan Province to get a sense of how much natural viral infection of human beings occurred among those living closest to the virus-shedding horseshoe bats in the province. Out of 218 people, the WIV researchers found just six samples that indicated past exposure to the kind of coronavirus likely to have originated in a bat. The researchers concluded that:

The 2.7 percent seropositivity for the high-risk group of residents living in close proximity to bat colonies suggests that spillover is a relatively rare event, however this depends on how long antibodies persist in people, since other individuals may have been exposed and antibodies waned. During questioning, none of the 6 seropositive subjects could recall any clinical symptoms in the past 12 months, suggesting that their bat SARSr-CoV infection either occurred before the time of sampling, or that infections were subclinical or caused only mild symptoms.

But there was one group of people that was handling a lot of bats from this region during this time period. In 2012 and 2013, the Wuhan Institute of Virology collected a lot of virus samples from the bats in the mineshaft that killed those miners. On December 24, 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology posted a job listing that, when translated, declared, “Long-term research on the pathogenic biology of bats carrying important viruses has confirmed the origin of bats of major new human and livestock infectious diseases such as SARS and SADS, and a large number of new bat and rodent new viruses have been discovered and identified” (emphasis added).

Jamison Fouss, the U.S. consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the U.S. embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology, and health, repeatedly visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and in January 2018, they wrote a memo to Washington articulating their concerns: “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” Professor Richard Ebright of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology argued that, “Bat coronaviruses at Wuhan [Center for Disease Control] and Wuhan Institute of Virology routinely were collected and studied at BSL-2, which provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers.”

A review of seven years of data from U.S. BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories found 749 incidents, including “needle sticks and other through-the-skin exposures from sharp objects; dropped containers or spills and splashes of liquids containing pathogens; bites or scratches from infected animals,” and more. The Wuhan Institute of Virology kept live bats in its walls, despite the denials from Peter Daszak — president of EcoHealth Alliance, longtime partner of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and one of the most staunch and outspoken critics of the lab-leak theory.

Our assessment of the virus’s origins should also include the decisions and actions of the Wuhan Institute of Virology right before, during, and after the scope of the pandemic became clear.

As DRASTIC uncovered, “On September 12, 2019, the main database of samples and viral sequences of the Wuhan Institute of Virology went offline; eventually every single of the 16 virus databases managed by the WIV was taken offline.” Separately, “Researchers at Wuhan University asked for [genetic] sequences to be removed from the Sequence Read Archive (SRA), a repository for raw sequencing data maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).”

At a time when the whole world needed as much information about the genes of this virus and how it worked as possible, why were so many Chinese researchers taking information offline? As Alina Chan asked, “What’s the point of funding more virus hunting when the virus databases just evaporate and cannot be used for anything when a pandemic actually occurs?”

Finally, China suffered more cases and fatalities from the original SARS outbreak than any other country. On paper, this should have made the Chinese government more likely to overreact to reports of a new viral infection. We would have expected Beijing to respond to a potential contagious outbreak in a major city and trade hub with all of the intensity, speed, and alertness of New Yorkers responding to a report of a hijacked passenger airliner. Instead, the Chinese government spent the first three to six weeks insisting that the virus was not contagious, even as the medical counter-evidence piled higher and higher. Was this just an authoritarian regime’s reflexive psychological denial? Or was the Chinese government trying to avoid looking guilty and hoping it seemed as surprised as anyone else by the virus’s danger?

To paraphrase Ebright, in the autumn of 2019, there were three institutions in the entire world that were doing gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses found in bats. One was in Galveston, Texas, one was in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the third was in Wuhan, China. The COVID-19 pandemic started right outside one of them. What are the odds that’s a coincidence?

As of this morning, there are 213 million COVID-19 infections around the world, and more than 4.4 million deaths — and that is using the highly unreliable figures from large authoritarian countries such as China and Russia. In May, The Economist gathered all the data available — rejecting China’s numbers, deeming them unreliable — and calculated that the excess deaths during the pandemic were somewhere between 7 million and 13 million.

For all that I’ve written, it may surprise you to learn that I still think a spillover from a wet market is theoretically possible, and more importantly, wet markets are still a danger which might cause a future pandemic. Years before this pandemic, scientists had warned that China’s “wet markets” represented a unique threat for outbreaks: “Nowhere else on earth do so many people have such close contact with so many birds.” Just because this pandemic appears likely to have resulted from a lab leak doesn’t mean that natural spillover from an infected animal, outside of a research laboratory, won’t be the cause of the next one.

ADDENDUM: Our Jack Crowe has an exclusive interview with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, in which Pompeo contends that the lack of American casualties for almost all of 2020 and 2021 represented the Taliban recognizing the consequences of provoking the coalition forces:

‘They broke the agreement a number of times: they moved forces where they weren’t supposed to move, they put certain elements of the Afghan forces at risk. And every time that happened, General Scotty Miller crushed them,’ he said. ‘We would call them and say ‘you did X, we responded with Y,’ stop doing X.’ And we modeled a deterrence mechanism that told the Taliban if you push the Americans under Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, there’ll be an enormous price to pay.’

World

The Taliban Are Hunting Afghan Contractors

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A member of the Taliban stands outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. (Stringer/Reuters)

On the menu today: A reader shares his accounts from Afghan contractors who are hiding from Taliban death squads in Kabul; the FDA gives the Pfizer vaccine full approval — after doctors and nurses have aleady administered 202 million shots; and Andrew Cuomo abandons his dog. Sometimes, you can just tell from the headlines that it’s a Monday.

Dodging the Taliban Death Squads in Afghanistan

If you missed it over the weekend, for a stretch of Friday and Saturday, one of the email accounts that the U.S. State Department uses to process a type of asylum visas for Afghans filled up, and messages to it started bouncing back to senders.

I heard about the embarrassing technical snafu from a longtime NR reader who spent years in Afghanistan working for a defense contractor. This reader’s company worked on the construction of camps and garrisons, parts of bases at Bagram and Kandahar, as well as several government buildings for the Afghan military and police. His company employed thousands of Afghans, all of whom are now targets of the Taliban.

Lest you doubt that Afghan construction workers would be on the Taliban’s target list, the Taliban is issuing death warrants for the relatives of translators who worked for the U.S. or coalition forces. Anyone who the Taliban thinks “helped the Americans” is marked for death — as well as their families.

My reader said emails stopped bouncing back late Saturday, but that “I have limited faith in its stability. Sometimes I feel like I’m shoveling P2 [asylum-visa] paperwork into a black hole. There is no mechanism whereby they acknowledge your submission.”

Last night, the White House issued updated numbers, declaring that “from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m., eight U.S. military flights — 7 C-17s and 1 C-130 — evacuated approximately 1,700 passengers from Hamid Karzai International Airport. In addition, 39 coalition aircraft took off with approximately 3,400 passengers. Since August 14, the U.S. has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 30,300 people on military and coalition flights.”

That is a lot, but there are still a lot of Afghan allies who need to get out of the country. Evacuate Our Allies, which presented a plan to move the endangered allies to Guam back in June, estimated the total number of Afghans who worked for the U.S., the coalition, or NGOs and other related entities to be at nearly 80,000. But no one knows exactly how many Afghans need to get out; from all accounts, the U.S. government has only a rough estimate of how many Americans remain in Afghanistan, never mind targeted Afghan allies.

Matt Zeller, co-founder of No One Left Behind, offered a detailed and impassioned assessment of the crisis this weekend. He had written in April that, “we have to understand, anyone who worked with us, has likely excommunicated themselves from the society around them thanks to that work. They are viewed by that society as American spies, traitors, and in the worst case, apostates. We have an obligation to save these people while we can — which is now.” His organization estimated before the airlift began that more than 50,000 Afghan wartime allies and evacuees live outside of Kabul, and that asking them to “run the Taliban gauntlet of checkpoints is a suicide mission.”

My reader described a call from one of his former engineers in Kabul:

The Entry Control Point leading to the north gate of [Kabul International Airport] is jammed with Afghans — likely thousands, he could not count. He is camped out with his wife and 4 kids. The [U.S. government] only lets in a few at a time. It’s a trickle. He has [Special Immigrant Visa] status — but he still has to wait days in an entry control point to get in.

I asked him how many planes take off each day. He said, ‘not many, sir. The planes mostly just sit there.’ He is told the chokepoint is Qatar. They have no other places ready to accept thousands of refugees.

Being near the airport is not necessarily a safe spot. The Taliban are reportedly seizing any U.S. passports they find. A gunfight just outside the airport killed at least one Afghan soldier early Monday. The German military tweeted that one member of the Afghan security forces was killed and three others were wounded by “unknown attackers.” The U.S. military is concerned that the Afghan affiliate of ISIS may target the crowds by the airport. And departing military planes are using decoy flares, an indication that they fear someone will fire a surface-to-air missile at them.

As tense as this situation is, it may well get much worse by midnight local time next Wednesday. President Biden said yesterday that the U.S. may not have all forces withdrawn by the end of the month, depending upon the pace of the evacuation. The Taliban declared this morning that August 31 is an intractable deadline, and that breaking that deadline would involve “consequences.”

My reader spoke with another one of his company’s engineers Saturday night, one who had not made it to the airport yet. “He, his wife and five children are hiding in a bedroom of a friend’s apartment in Kabul. Twice yesterday, the Taliban knocked on the door asking for him. He is terrified for his daughters. He has no idea how to get to the airport past the Taliban checkpoints. Airport Road, Tajikan Road and Russia Road are the only ways in and the Taliban controls those routes.”

My reader’s anger, heartbreak, fear, and disgust is palpable. “Somebody claiming to have planned for every contingency is delusional,” he concludes.

Brad Taylor — whom you may know for his thriller novels, but who was also a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry and served for more than 21 years, retiring as a Special Forces Lieutenant Colonelpointed out this weekend that the U.S. military trains and prepares for “NEOs” (Noncombatant Evacuation Operations) — all the time. There is a playbook for this type of dangerous situation that, for some not-yet-explained reason, has not been used. Taylor concludes that, “We should not be asking the Taliban for clear passage to the airport and then telling [American citizens] in Kabul to make their own way. We should be executing a forcible entry into the city and evacuating every last [American citizen]. The message should be clear: We aren’t hostile to you, unless you’re hostile to us, but we’re establishing corridors of evacuation, and if you attempt to stop us, you will die. And then back up that threat with firepower.”

202 Million Shots Later, Full Approval for Pfizer

After more than 202 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine had been injected into Americans’ bloodstreams, the FDA is giving full approval to the Pfizer vaccine. This absurd bit of molasses-like federal-regulatory approval will clear up whether those who said they were uncomfortable with a vaccine that was only under “emergency” approval were telling the truth.

The New York Times reported Friday:

Regulators were working to finish the process by Friday but were still working through a substantial amount of paperwork and negotiation with the company. The people familiar with the planning, who were not authorized to speak publicly about it, cautioned that the approval might slide beyond Monday if some components of the review need more time.

If everyone more or less “knew” that Pfizer’s vaccine was going to be granted full approval . . . just what was in that last bit of paperwork that made it so important? Was it worth waiting another couple of days? And is this FDA-approval process moving fast enough on reformulated boosters (the current boosters are just a third dose of the same stuff) and vaccines for children?

Go to Hell, Andrew Cuomo

The New York governor who so much of the national media told us was the most swell guy ever last year abandoned his dog when he left the governor’s mansion.

Then again, I guess the theme of August is “abandonment by Democratic officials whom the media celebrated in 2020.”

ADDENDUM: Our John Fund offers an astute assessment that helps explain the blistering tone of media coverage of Afghanistan over the past week:

Media figures and the establishment sources who leak to them are boiling over with frustration at how much Biden has disappointed them. . . . Despite all of their efforts, now Biden has insisted on embarrassing them. Make no mistake, there is a genuine collapse of confidence in Biden. They may kiss and make up because Democratic control of Congress is at stake in 2022, but the wounds felt by the establishment from Biden’s incompetence will remain.

World

The True Extent of Biden’s Lies about Afghanistan

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President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a speech in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 18, 2021. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

On the menu today: New revelations reveal how many things President Biden said in recent days that were the precise opposite of the truth; Biden returns to his Delaware home today; the Columbia Journalism Review realizes that conservative media were the only ones who didn’t buy into the Andrew Cuomo hype; and a note of thanks.

Almost Everything Biden Said about Afghanistan Was False

President Joe Biden, August 10, 2021: “I’ll insist we continue to keep the commitments we made of providing close air support, making sure that their air force functions and is operable, re- — resupplying their forces with food and equipment, and paying all their salaries. But they’ve got to want to fight. They have outnumbered the Taliban. And I’m getting daily briefings. I think there’s still a possibility — you have a significant new Secretary of Defense — our equivalent of a Secretary of Defense in Afghanistan, Bismillah Khan, who is a serious fighter (emphasis added).”

The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2021: “In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters. That meant the Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.”

President Biden, in his interview with George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday: “The idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that the — that somehow, the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped was gonna just collapse, they were gonna give up. I don’t think anybody anticipated that (emphasis added).

The Wall Street Journal, today:

An internal State Department memo last month warned top agency officials of the potential collapse of Kabul soon after the U.S.’s Aug. 31 troop withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. official and a person familiar with the document.

The classified cable represents the clearest evidence yet that the administration had been warned by its own officials on the ground that the Taliban’s advance was imminent, and Afghanistan’s military may be unable to stop it. The cable, sent via the State Department’s confidential dissent channel, warned of rapid territorial gains by the Taliban and the subsequent collapse of Afghan security forces, and offered recommendations on ways to mitigate the crisis and speed up an evacuation, the two people said. [Emphasis added.]

Biden to Stephanopoulos on Wednesday: “One of the things we didn’t know is what the Taliban would do in terms of trying to keep people from getting out, what they would do. What are they doing now? They’re cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, et cetera (emphasis added).”

So far, there are no reports of the Taliban killing an American citizen or impeding an American from getting to the airport. (They are attacking Australians.) But they have accosted and threatened American journalists, fired off shots, attacked crowds, and have made getting to the airport impossible to do safely.

This morning, on-the-ground reporters in Afghanistan said that:

Taliban fighters have erected checkpoints outside Kabul airport and prevented — sometimes violently — thousands of Afghans with travel documents from boarding flights out of the war-torn country.

Eyewitnesses say Taliban fighters, some carrying sticks and whips, are letting foreigners enter the airport but refusing many Afghans, even those with foreign passports.

With foreign governments unable to secure safe passage for passengers, some flights have left Kabul mostly empty. A plane from Germany, able to carry around 150 passengers, left with only seven people on board this week, sparking widespread criticism.

The BBC:

The warning the Taliban were targeting “collaborators” came in a confidential document by the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, which provides intelligence to the UN.

“There are a high number of individuals that are currently being targeted by the Taliban and the threat is crystal clear,” Christian Nellemann, who heads the group behind the report, told the BBC.

“It is in writing that, unless they give themselves in, the Taliban will arrest and prosecute, interrogate and punish family members on behalf of those individuals.”

He warned that anyone on the Taliban’s blacklist was in severe danger, and that there could be mass executions.

Amnesty International, this morning:

On-the-ground researchers spoke to eyewitnesses who gave harrowing accounts of the killings, which took place between July 4-6 in the village of Mundarakht, Malistan district. Six of the men were shot and three were tortured to death, including one man who was strangled with his own scarf and had his arm muscles sliced off.

The brutal killings likely represent a tiny fraction of the total death toll inflicted by the Taliban to date, as the group have cut mobile phone service in many of the areas they have recently captured, controlling which photographs and videos are then shared from these regions.

“The cold-blooded brutality of these killings is a reminder of the Taliban’s past record, and a horrifying indicator of what Taliban rule may bring,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“These targeted killings are proof that ethnic and religious minorities remain at particular risk under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.”

The president assures us that the guys who slice the muscles off their prisoners are “cooperating.” That assessment goes well with his declaration that the guys who beat a woman to death for refusing to cook for them are in an “existential crisis.”

Working Hard, or Hardly Working?

During arguably the biggest foreign-policy crisis in the past decade, Joe Biden did not appear in public at all Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. He is scheduled to address the country about Afghanistan today at 1 p.m. Eastern. He is still scheduled to spend Friday into Sunday at one of his homes in Delaware.

Chris Cillizza thinks that pointing this out “is the sort of gross, lowest-common-denominator politics that drive people away from public life.”

Remember Who Didn’t Fall for the Cuomo Hype?

I am glad that Ross Barkan of the Columbia Journalism Review is calling out most of the national media for enabling Andrew Cuomo’s worst impulses:

The media, at every turn, fueled the Cuomo myth.

It must be made clear what is meant here by media: almost all of it, including cable TV and prestige newspapers and magazines. The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC all helped inflate Cuomo’s reputation, along with other mainstream publications. CNN, most notoriously, allowed Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, to interview him repeatedly in prime-time. Since Cuomo is a Democrat, conservative media, by virtue of political polarization, didn’t play along. The New York Post would’ve probably done less accountability journalism and scathing headlines if Donald Trump Jr. governed New York.

You can attribute conservative-media skepticism of Andrew Cuomo to knee-jerk “political polarization.” No doubt, that was at least a contributing factor in a lot of places. But you don’t see conservative media tearing into New Jersey governor Phil Murphy nearly as much (and maybe we should), or Connecticut governor Ned Lamont, and they’re both in the New York media market. You might throw in former Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo (and maybe she deserved tougher scrutiny from everyone, too).

Maybe the tough coverage of Cuomo was a demonstration of reflexive partisanship, or maybe it’s because those of us in conservative media have eyes. It’s not like Cuomo’s egomania, narcissism, and habitual bullying were hard to spot in public contexts. Unlike some institutions, we’re not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to a Democratic governor because we see him as part of “our team.” And while we at National Review are naturally more aligned with Republican governors than Democratic ones, we’re willing to call out the GOP ones we think are lousy — think of the cover story calling Bruce Rauner “the worst Republican governor in America” and another cover story on Chris Christie’s “fondness for expensive big-business tax subsidies that smack of corporate cronyism.”

It’s almost like conservative media might be right sometimes, even if you can’t stand us.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Seth Mandel for the recent kind words, and everyone who concurred.

It means a lot to me that so many readers write in or tell me that every weekday morning — and then throughout the day — I help them make sense of a crazy world, whether it’s exposing the Chinese government’s lies about COVID-19 and the evidence pointing to a lab leak in Wuhan, refuting erroneous conventional wisdom about what events are likely to be super-spreaders, clearing up simplistic narratives about the unvaccinated, tracking a sudden shift in what it is now socially acceptable to say, or unpacking this week’s nightmarish turn of events in Afghanistan.

One of the upsides of a role such as this, where I spend a lot of time reading and researching and gathering information, sorting through it, and trying to lay it out in a way that makes the world seem a little clearer is that a lot of the time, I feel like I’m ahead of the curve.

I will not lie, though; there are some days when I can’t make sense of the world. There are times — and this week is one of them — when what is going on is so maddening, outraging, depressing, and horrible to watch that I’m at a loss, that it feels as if the world has spun off its axis, and that something about how the world is supposed to work has become fundamentally broken. We’re not supposed to see mothers throwing their babies over barbed-wire fences, desperately begging foreign soldiers to take their infants away to safety. We’re not supposed to see women getting executed for not wearing burqas by men who are promising the world they will respect women’s rights. We’re not supposed to see a terrorist network affiliated with al-Qaeda suddenly placed in charge of Kabul’s security.

What we’re witnessing this week is a spectacular triumph of evil. And I suspect a lot of Americans feel pretty damn powerless right now.

White House

Something Is Wrong with the President

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President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 11, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: The transcript of President Joe Biden’s interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos dropped, and the president’s incoherence, insistence that he was incorrectly briefed, denial that he was warned by his military advisers, and oddly low profile in the past week raise troubling questions about his ability to perform his duties.

What’s Going On with President Biden?
After making no public appearances for four days — during a major foreign crisis — President Biden read a 20-minute speech off a teleprompter on Monday afternoon and took no questions. He immediately returned to Camp David. He had no events on his schedule Tuesday. On Wednesday, he gave another 20-minute speech about vaccine boosters off a teleprompter from Camp David, and again took no questions. Also on Wednesday, the president sat for an on-camera interview with George Stephanopoulos that did not go well. According to the White House public records, Biden has had two phone conversations with foreign leaders in the past ten days — one with Boris Johnson and one with Angela Merkel.

As of this writing, Biden has no public events on his schedule for today. He is scheduled to receive the president’s daily briefing from the intelligence community and meet with his national-security team. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, he is scheduled to return to his house in Delaware today.

This is a highly unusual schedule for a president during a foreign-policy crisis. Yes, a president can perform his job anywhere, whether it’s Camp David or his own private residence. But Biden is barely appearing in public, not saying much of anything when he does, not answering any questions outside of his lone scheduled interview, and sounding angry when he did face questions from Stephanopoulos.

Biden began the interview by insisting that the intelligence community had given him unclear and excessively optimistic answers about the state of the Afghan military and government:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Back in July, you said a Taliban takeover was highly unlikely. Was the intelligence wrong, or did you downplay it?

BIDEN: I think — there was no consensus. If you go back and look at the intelligence reports, they said that it’s more likely to be sometime by the end of the year.

The first problem is that there is no way to square what Biden said yesterday with his July 8 declaration that the intelligence community had not stated that the Afghan government would likely collapse:

Q: Mr. President, thank you very much. Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse.

THE PRESIDENT: That is not true.

Q: Is it — can you please clarify what they have told you about whether that will happen or not?

THE PRESIDENT: That is not true. They did not — they didn’t — did not reach that conclusion.

Then during the Stephanopoulos interview, Biden insisted that he himself had predicted that the Afghan government would collapse by the end of the year:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you know that Senator McConnell, others say this was not only predictable, it was predicted, including by him, based on intelligence briefings he was getting.

BIDEN: What — what did he say was predicted?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator McConnell said it was predictable that the Taliban was gonna take over.

BIDEN: Well, by the end of the year, I said that’s that was — that was a real possibility. But no one said it was gonna take over then when it was bein’ asked.

The president either does not remember what he said on July 8, or he is simply trying to gaslight everyone into believing that he did warn of the Afghan government’s collapsing.

This morning, Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism chief and former member of Biden’s counterterrorism working group, writes that the president is lying: “Ultimately, it was assessed, Afghan forces might capitulate within days under the circumstances we witnessed, in projections highlighted to Trump officials and future Biden officials alike.”

Biden not only dodged questions — we’re used to politicians doing that — he offered a barely coherent word salad in some responses:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So when you look at what’s happened over the last week, was it a failure of intelligence, planning, execution or judgment?

BIDEN: Look, I don’t think it was a fa– look, it was a simple choice, George. When the– when the Taliban — let me back — put it another way. When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government get in a plane and taking off and going to another country, when you saw the significant collapse of the ta– of the– Afghan troops we had trained — up to 300,000 of them just leaving their equipment and taking off, that was — you know, I’m not– this — that — that’s what happened. That’s simply what happened.

Stephanopolous continued, “We’ve all seen the pictures. We’ve seen those hundreds of people packed in a C-17. We’ve seen Afghans falling-”

“That was four days ago, five days ago!” Biden interjected. It was two days ago, but that’s not really what is important; what is spectacularly odd is that Biden is reacting as if he thinks Stephanopolous was bringing up irrelevant ancient history.

Why was Biden indignant that Stephanopolous was asking about those horrifying sights?

Perhaps most unsettling was President Biden’s insistence that nothing could have been done any differently, and that none of the horrors we are witnessing could have been prevented.

“So, you don’t think this could have been handled — this exit could have been handled better in any way, no mistakes?” Stephanopoulos asked Biden.

“No, I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that, we’re gonna go back in hindsight and look — but the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how that happened,” Biden replied.

Biden is now insisting that the chaos of a Taliban takeover was inevitable, even though he stood before the country on July 8 and specifically assured the country that a Taliban takeover was not inevitable:

Q: Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?

THE PRESIDENT: No, it is not.

Q: Why?

THE PRESIDENT: Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.

Biden also said that day that, “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war” and “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Elsewhere in the Stephanopoulos interview, Biden insisted that, contrary to published reports, his military advisers had not recommended keeping 2,500 troops in the country:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But your top military advisors warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.

BIDEN: No, they didn’t. It was split. Tha– that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?

BIDEN: No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn’t argue against that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no one told — your military advisors did not tell you, “No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that”?

BIDEN: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.

There are notes of these meetings that can be declassified. We can see if, as the Wall Street Journal and other publications reported, “The president’s top generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, urged Mr. Biden to keep a force of about 2,500 troops, the size he inherited, while seeking a peace agreement between warring Afghan factions, to help maintain stability. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who previously served as a military commander in the region, said a full withdrawal wouldn’t provide any insurance against instability.” If they did not, Biden is telling the truth and there’s been an insane effort by Pentagon brass leaking that they’re warning the president of about certain dangers, and then not doing so in the meetings. (There is a third possibility, of course: Biden genuinely does not remember what was said and recommended to him in a meeting several months ago.)

Jon Ralston, no knee-jerk critic of Biden, was appalled. “This is so bad. No mistakes? No responsibility? No contrition? My God.”

The obvious answer to why Biden rarely appears on camera or takes questions is because every time he does it, he inflicts more damage upon himself and his agenda. The president whose empathy is endlessly touted now sounds cold and dismissive when asked about Afghans’ desperately crowding into American planes or falling to their deaths. All of the available evidence indicates that the president ignored the warnings of his foreign-policy team, withdrew the armed forces before evacuating the civilians, gave up Bagram Air Base, and now is in a large-scale foreign crisis that is mostly the result of his own choices. There is no good defense to be made, so when cornered, the president invoked his late son’s military service in the Stephanopoulos interview::

STEPHANOPOULOS: I– I think a lot of– a lot of Americans, and a l– even a lot of veterans who served in Afghanistan agree with you on the big, strategic picture. They believe we had to get out. But I wonder how you respond to an Army Special Forces officer, Javier McKay (PH). He did seven tours. He was shot twice. He agrees with you. He says, “We have to cut our losses in Afghanistan.” But he adds, “I just wish we could’ve left with honor.”

BIDEN: Look, that’s like askin’ my deceased son Beau, who spent six months in Kosovo and a year in Iraq as a Navy captain and then major– I mean, as an Army major. And, you know, I’m sure h– he had regrets comin’ out of Afganista– I mean, out of Iraq.

He had regrets to what’s– how– how it’s going. But the idea– what’s the alternative? The alternative is why are we staying in Afghanistan?

The president turns 79 in November. He last released a summary of his health condition in December 2019. In May, a White House spokesman said Biden had not had a medical checkup or taken a physical this year, but that he would by the end of the year. There have been no updates on the president’s health since.

Back on July 26, John Ellis astutely analyzed how it was acceptable to acknowledge Biden’s age and mental condition if you used certain euphemisms:

Somewhere along the way of the last few years, Biden transitioned from “young old” to “old.” Veteran reporters describe the transition in code. “He’s lost a step or two.” Or: “he’s lost something off his fastball.”

You’re not supposed to talk about it. If you do, and you’re a Democrat, you’re scolded for aiding and abetting the enemy. If you do, and you’re a Republican or (God forbid) a MAGA voter, you’re a horrible hate-mongerer, trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election (and you probably watch Fox News to boot).

The problem is that it’s there for all to see. Pretending not to see it is untenable.

Something is wrong with President Biden, and we are all being asked to pretend we don’t notice.

ADDENDUM: Mario Loyola points to recent history in Iraq as a vision of what our counterterrorism mission will become in Afghanistan with no military presence on the ground:

Most of us didn’t realize at the time that when Obama pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq, he also pulled out all our “ISR”: Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance. So when ISIS began its dramatic advance across the Middle East, all we had going was satellite intelligence — not much help against fighters who dress like everyone else and roll around in Toyotas.

In a region of the world teeming with U.S. military and intelligence assets, Iraq had become a black hole: No AC-130s, no helicopters, no drones, no special forces, no regular soldiers within hundreds of miles. That’s what the “over-the-horizon” strategy looked like in Iraq. Those assets all need local operating bases, and we had none. Satellites and supersonic aircraft were of no help against ISIS.

We don’t even have an embassy in Afghanistan anymore.

Politics & Policy

A Crisis of Competence

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President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 12, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: Three vivid and outrageous examples of America’s ongoing crisis of government competence.

America’s Crisis of Competence, Part One

Chris Cillizza of CNN wrote Monday, “Seven months into his first term, however, Biden is faced with nothing short of a crisis of that competence, beset on a number of fronts with developments that it appears all of his experience and know-how didn’t prevent.”

The New York Times confirms what many of us suspected, that President Biden was informed of how the Taliban were likely to quickly reconquer Afghanistan, and he simply chose to lie to the American public: “Classified assessments by American spy agencies over the summer painted an increasingly grim picture of the prospect of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and warned of the rapid collapse of the Afghan military, even as President Biden and his advisers said publicly that was unlikely to happen as quickly, according to current and former American government officials.”

In his July 8 press conference, Biden specifically denied that the U.S. intelligence community was warning that the Afghan government would collapse:

Q: Mr. President, thank you very much. Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse.

THE PRESIDENT: That is not true.

Q: Is it — can you please clarify what they have told you about whether that will happen or not?

THE PRESIDENT: That is not true. They did not — they didn’t — did not reach that conclusion.

Everyone in the Pentagon and White House is now laying out how they warned the president, and that he refused to heed their warnings:

The president’s top generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, urged Mr. Biden to keep a force of about 2,500 troops, the size he inherited, while seeking a peace agreement between warring Afghan factions, to help maintain stability. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who previously served as a military commander in the region, said a full withdrawal wouldn’t provide any insurance against instability.

In a series of meetings leading up to his decision, military and intelligence officials told Mr. Biden that security was deteriorating in Afghanistan, and they expressed concerns both about the capabilities of the Afghan military and the Taliban’s likely ability to take over major Afghan cities.

What’s the point of having a well-funded, top-tier intelligence community and experienced military advisers if the president simply ignores their warnings, disregards their information, and trusts his gut that everything will turn out fine?

Biden could not even be convinced to delay his preferred policy to when it would do the least damage. Jon Sopel of the BBC observes that “in Afghanistan there is a fighting season which starts in spring — and then in winter, when the country freezes over, there is a time when the Taliban go home to their tribal homelands. Did no-one think that it might have been better to have ordered the withdrawal for the dead of winter when Taliban forces weren’t there, poised to fill the vacuum?”

America’s Crisis of Competence, Part Two

President Joe Biden, July 4: “Two hundred and forty-five years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus. . . . It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation.”

The only way the pandemic stops is with herd immunity, and the emergence of the much more contagious Delta variant means the threshold for herd immunity climbed much higher.

Unfortunately, Delta is really contagious; almost 99 percent of all cases in the United States are now the Delta variant. When you see the figure, “only 50.9 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated,” keep in mind that there are roughly 48 million American children below the age of twelve who can’t get vaccinated yet. More than 70 percent of Americans over twelve have at least one dose, more than 72 percent of American adults over 18 have at least one dose, and almost 91 percent of senior citizens have at least one dose.

If America were fighting classic, pre-Delta COVID-19, we would be in much better shape. Unfortunately, our cases are up 52 percent in the past two weeks and our hospitalizations are up 62 percent. Thankfully, the number of deaths has increased at a much slower pace — but the seven-day average of daily new deaths crept up from 468 two weeks ago to 633 yesterday. This country had 10,445 deaths from COVID-19 in June, 9,691 deaths in July, and 17 days into August, we’re at 9,668 deaths.

There are several ways the U.S. government could get the vaccination rates higher and improve the public’s overall resistance to the virus. They could give full and final approval to the original vaccines, approve and distribute boosters, and they could approve vaccinations for children under the age of twelve. Unfortunately, on all three fronts, the effort is slowed by government agencies dragging their feet.

On July 16, Pfizer announced that the FDA intended to make full approval of the company’s vaccine a priority. Pfizer started the rolling application with regular updates to data back in May. The general sense is that full approval will come sometime in September. It is not hard to find public experts such as Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who said he had “not sensed a sense of urgency from the F.D.A. on full approval.”

As noted yesterday, the U.S. government is expected to endorse booster shots for everyone who is fully vaccinated in the coming days. That booster shot will be a third dose of the vaccines people have already received. Pharmaceutical companies are working on updated and reformulated versions specifically designed to target the Delta variant, but by the time the clinical trials are completed, the Delta wave will probably have long since burned through the American population.

When it comes to vaccinating kids, there are some signs that doctors are getting a little frustrated with the FDA. The American Association of Pediatrics wrote to the agency on August 5, hinting that its criteria were excessively cautious considering the threat of COVID-19 to children:

I urge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to continue working aggressively towards authorizing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines for children under age 12 as soon as possible.

Last week saw the largest week-over-week percentage increase in pediatric COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. The data show 71,726 COVID cases in children reported last week, almost double the 38,654 reported in the previous week. Simply stated, the Delta variant has created a new and pressing risk to children and adolescents across this country, as it has also done for unvaccinated adults.

We understand that the FDA has recently worked with Pfizer and Moderna to double the number of children ages 5-11 years included in clinical trials of their COVID-19 vaccines. While we appreciate this prudent step to gather more safety data, we urge FDA to carefully consider the impact of this decision on the timeline for authorizing a vaccine for this age group. In our view, the rise of the Delta variant changes the risk-benefit analysis for authorizing vaccines in children. The FDA should strongly consider authorizing these vaccines for children ages 5-11 years based on data from the initial enrolled cohort, which are already available, while continuing to follow safety data from the expanded cohort in the post-market setting. This approach would not slow down the time to authorization of these critically needed vaccines in the 5–11-year age group.

In addition, as FDA continues to evaluate clinical trial requirements for children under 5 years, we similarly urge FDA to carefully consider the impact of its regulatory decisions on further delays in the availability of vaccines for this age group.

The current expectation is that the FDA will approve vaccines for children by “midwinter.” That will be roughly two years after the pandemic first appeared in the United States.

Public schools are already temporarily closing because of outbreaks in parts of Alabama, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee. Texas, and Virginia.

America’s Crisis of Competence, Part Three

Joe Biden is technically still the president of the United States, but it’s fair to wonder what he does in that role all day. After not being seen at all for four days, other than in a photo his staff tweeted out, Biden read a 20-minute speech off a teleprompter Monday afternoon and took no questions. He immediately returned to Camp David. He had no events on his schedule Tuesday.

Yesterday, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said that President Biden had not spoken with any foreign leaders since the fall of Kabul. Late Tuesday night, the White House announced that Biden had spoken to Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom. According to the White House website, that was Biden’s first interaction with a foreign leader since August 9, when he spoke with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan “to commend him on Japan’s successful hosting of the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.”

Biden is supposed to sit down for an interview with George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday, and in the one public appearance on his schedule today, he is set to give “remarks on the COVID-19 response and the vaccination program.”

What is Biden doing when we can’t see him?

ADDENDUM: Yesterday at the White House:

Q: If that mission is not complete by August 31st and there are Americans and Afghan allies who remain there, will U.S. troops stay until everyone is out, or will they leave?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR JAKE SULLIVAN: So, I’m not going to comment on hypotheticals.

As Allahpundit put it, “The correct answer is ‘We’ll get every American out, no matter what it takes. Full stop.’

National Security & Defense

The Biden Illusion Crumbles to Dust

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Screens display President Joe Biden’s remarks on the crisis in Afghanistan at the Nasdaq MarketSite in Times Square, New York, N.Y., August 16, 2021. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

On the menu today: After more than four days of silence concerning the Afghanistan disaster, President Joe Biden addressed the nation and confirmed all of the worst suspicions of his critics. And the federal government finally gets around to publicly discussing the need for COVID-vaccine boosters this autumn, as this newsletter suggested last week.

Biden’s Indefensible Defense

From 11:15 a.m., Thursday, August 12, to a little past 4 p.m., Monday, August 16, President Joe Biden did not appear in public. For a little more than four days, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and Americans witnessed the horrific sight of desperate Afghans clinging to planes and falling to their deaths, the president offered no explanation beyond a terse, released written statement and a photo of the president that neglected to crop out the teleconference screens labeled “CIA” and “Doha Station.”

When the president did finally speak, he read from a teleprompter for 20 minutes, took no questions, and barely acknowledged that he had assured Americans, at the beginning of July, that no part of this disaster would unfold this way. The lone admission was a vague, passive-voice, “this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” a strong nominee for the Disingenuous Public Relations Spin Hall of Fame.

Biden instead relitigated the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. He made no defense of how that withdrawal is proceeding, because in large part, it is indefensible.

Biden’s account of his decision-making acknowledged that the Taliban intimidated us — or perhaps more specifically, him — and that we sought no further conflict with them:

U.S. forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 American forces to 2,500 troops in country, and the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001.

The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.

Biden announced to the world that he finds everything that we’re witnessing preferable to fighting the Taliban.

A little more than a month after Biden assured Americans that, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” the president had the audacity to claim that, “We were clear-eyed about the risks.”

As he made a decision that would leave almost every Afghan man, woman, and child to the tender mercies of the Taliban, and that would see public executions and forced “marriages” return, Biden had the nerve to claim that, “I have been clear that human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery.”

Biden denounced the Afghan army that five weeks ago he called “better trained, better equipped, more competent in terms of conducting war.” He contended that, “We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support,” when that is not the case. “In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters.”

Biden criticized Afghan political leaders for refusing to negotiate with the Taliban forces that are now hunting them down and murdering them: “If the political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down, they would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.”

Biden asserted that “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” and indeed, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled, reportedly with cash. But Biden did not mention that the Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh is currently organizing a guerrilla movement in the Panjshir Valley.

Biden pledged that, “Over the coming days, we intend to transport out thousands of American citizens who have been living and working in Afghanistan.” This was his subtle acknowledgment that “thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country.”

All of this makes it hard to believe Biden’s claim that his administration had plans in place to “respond to every constituency.” (I think he meant “contingency.”) Apparently, our deliberate plan was to:

  • Leave Bagram Air Base without telling the local Afghan commander, leaving it to get looted before the Afghan military could take over;
  • Leave ourselves only the option of Kabul International Airport for airlifting people in and out of the country;
  • Evacuate our troops before we evacuated civilians; and
  • Not leave enough forces on the ground to ensure a safe evacuation of civilians, so that we needed to send 3,000 more personnel into the country.

Biden also said that, “In the coming days, the U.S. military will provide assistance to move more [Special Immigrant Visa]-eligible Afghans and their families out of Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan war veteran Matt Zeller, cofounder of the nonprofit No One Left Behind, contends that the administration is wildly undercounting how many Afghans worked for us and are now at risk.

“We had all the people and equipment in place to save these people months ago — and we did nothing. I’m appalled that [President Biden] thinks we only need to take 2,000 people. There’s 86,000 people who are currently left behind in Afghanistan alone,” Zeller said. “We’ve identified them for the government.”

Biden concluded, “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that. We severely degraded al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

This is the part of the speech that should worry the most ardent advocate of withdrawal. “Severely degraded” is not the same as eliminated, and after the experience of ISIS in Iraq, we have good reason to suspect that Islamist extremism is like kudzu — unless you clear it all out, it grows back quickly. The Taliban are openly telling CNN interviewers that “One day mujahedeen will have victory and Islamic law will come not just to Afghanistan, but all over the world. We are not in a hurry. We believe it will come one day. Jihad will not end until the last day.”

There is no indication that the Taliban have abandoned their past support of al-Qaeda or other Islamist terrorist groups. A spring 2020 report from the United Nations painted a portrait of the Taliban indicating they have learned nothing, and have changed nothing:

The senior leadership of Al-Qaida remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban. A number of significant Al-Qaida figures were killed in Afghanistan during the reporting period. Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and Al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage. The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy. The challenge will be to secure the counter-terrorism gains to which the Taliban have committed, which will require them to suppress any international threat emanating from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. . . .

Some Member States reported that the Taliban appear to have strengthened their relationship with Al-Qaida rather than the opposite. One Member State reported that the regularity of meetings between Al-Qaida seniors and the Taliban “made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction”. The link was described not in simple terms of group-to-group, but rather as “one of deep personal ties (including through marriage) and long-term sense of brotherhood”. Al-Qaida capitalizes on this through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance and financial support. The Taliban offensive against Ghazni City in August 2018 was a prime example of the effective deployment of Al-Qaida support.

Even if you believe that the U.S. has no vital interest in the human-rights situation in Afghanistan, we have a vital interest in ensuring that whoever is controlling Afghanistan is not renting out space to Islamist terrorist groups for their training camps. The line between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is awfully blurry. If the Taliban had turned over Osama bin Laden in 2001, we never would have invaded.

For many years — since at least 2013 — American leaders in both parties have expressed an odd faith in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This was always a naïve, nonsensical strategy that relied on the trustworthiness of an untrustworthy group; as I wrote back then, “They’re the Taliban, and they’re trying to kill our soldiers. Why do we think we can trust them to keep their word? And if we can’t trust them to keep their word on their end of the agreement, why are we negotiating with them?”

Now it is clear what kind of president we have, after all the strutting about “America is back!” and the photo-ops at international summits are done. And even Biden’s former colleagues and political allies are shuddering:

“He didn’t really spend much time on the issue that I think really concerns the American people, which is the execution of that decision. What went wrong and how it is going to be fixed?” said Leon E. Panetta, a longtime adviser to Democratic presidents who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama. “It just struck me that they were crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result. And it doesn’t work that way.”

Panetta, who said he has been unsure what to tell the numerous contacts in Afghanistan calling him seeking a way out of the country, said, “Right now it just does not look like we have our act together.” He expressed surprise at the seeming lack of preparation.

Obama’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said:

“We’re going to pay for that for a long time to come, and that’s why it is insane — just idiotic — to think that we can tell the Taliban that if they don’t stop taking over territory and play nice, the international community will withhold recognition and support,” he said. “The Taliban really doesn’t care, because they’ve got something far more valuable.”

Crocker said he also worries the Taliban could again harbor terrorist groups, while U.S. intelligence agencies will be less capable of tracking threats in the country after the withdrawal.

“We have seen this movie before,” he said. “This would be the Taliban of the 1990s that gave safe haven to al-Qaida, except they’re meaner and tougher than they were then because of what they’ve been through.”

“I’m left with some grave questions in my mind about his ability to lead our nation as commander-in-chief,” Crocker said. “To have read this so wrong – or, even worse, to have understood what was likely to happen and not care.”

And over in Europe:

NATO allies are shaken, said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, who described Biden’s address to the nation as an “unrepentant” message that “might fly in the US, but won’t do much for American leadership in the world.” Officials across Europe told POLITICO they worry Biden’s actions in Afghanistan may be discrediting the western alliance.

Yesterday afternoon, President Biden returned to Camp David. He has no public events on his schedule today.

ADDENDUM: This newsletter said on August 13 that: “If the 44 million American senior citizens who are fully vaccinated are going to need boosters in the fall, it is probably a good idea to start openly discussing this now — instead of mid August FDA statements declaring that ‘individuals who are fully vaccinated are adequately protected and do not need an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine at this time.’”

CNN, this morning: “Top health officials in the Biden administration are coalescing around an agreement that most Americans should get Covid booster shots eight months after becoming fully vaccinated, two sources familiar with the discussions tell CNN. The plan, which is still being developed, would involve administering third shots beginning in mid- to late September, one source added, pending authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration. . . . The plan could be announced as soon as this week, though the timing could slide.”

National Security & Defense

American Defeat in Afghanistan Exposes the ‘Smart Power’ Mirage

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Then-President Barack Obama, Then-Vice President Joe Biden (C), and former president Bill Clinton (R) attend the memorial service for Senator Robert Byrd on the steps of the state capitol in Charleston, W.Va., July 2, 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

On the menu today: As the U.S. mission in Afghanistan ends in disaster and the Taliban returns to rule with wanton and widespread cruelty again, it is time to once and for all cast away the notion that the Democrats are the party of “smart power” abroad.

The Foreign Policy ‘Smart Set’ Leads America to Defeat Again

Every four years, a Democratic presidential candidate pops up and reminds us that he — or, one cycle, she — represents the smart party when it comes to foreign policy. These Democrats boast that they’re not isolationist, like Donald Trump, and they’re not unilateralist cowboys, like George W. Bush. They, and their top advisers, assure us that they are right, tough, smart, nuanced, and sophisticated. And every four years, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment — think-tank wonks, retired diplomats, columnists and authors, certain retired generals — almost uniformly swoons at these Democratic presidential candidates’ keen grasp of a complicated and dangerous world.

And these top Democrats are not shy about telling us how they understand the world better than anyone else does.

Bill Clinton’s website informs us that, “President Clinton understood from the beginning of his presidency that the most pervasive force in our world is globalization.” (Perhaps the most consequential decision of Clinton’s presidency was setting the U.S. and China on a path to economic integration that is likely to be the preeminent foreign-policy challenge of this decade.) “Tough and smart,” they assured us about John Kerry, who went on to become Obama’s secretary of state and Joe Biden’s climate czar. Barack Obama, by virtue of his unique heritage, “would do more for America’s soft power around the world than anything else we could do.” Hillary Clinton, then Obama’s nominee to be secretary of state, declared at her confirmation hearing that, “We must use what has been called ‘smart power’, the full range of tools at our disposal.” The Obama administration could not explain its worldview without reaffirming that it was the smart one; the administration literally referred to its own strategy as “smart power.” The Democrats represented the sophisticated, up-to-date worldview, while the Republicans were outdated dinosaurs — as Obama scoffed at Mitt Romney during a debate while discussing Russia and Vladimir Putin, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

We were told during the Obama years that Joe Biden was an unparalleled diplomatic asset because of his “strategic empathy.” As a candidate, Biden pledged that, “I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world. . . . This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.” Upon Biden’s election, the Financial Times declared that, “the grown-ups are back in charge in Washington.” Biden boasted, shortly after taking the oath of office that, “America is back!”

In the worldview of the Democratic foreign-policy cognoscenti, Americans should expect foreign-policy crises during Republican presidencies, because GOP presidents and their foreign-policy teams are either crazed warmongers or ignorant, selfish isolationists, or some combination of the two. They just don’t understand the world as well as the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers.

But something odd happens whenever the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers come to power. Somehow, randomly — through no fault of their own, they insist — disaster strikes.

As its eight years came to a close, the Clinton administration assured Americans that it had “defined a new security agenda that addresses contemporary threats.” There was no mention of that once-obscure extremist who steadily and gradually expanded his power until he commanded a worldwide army of Islamist terrorists, probing for holes and weak spots in America’s open society — detonating truck bombs in New York City, leveling embassies, blowing up U.S. Navy ships. Clinton’s decision-making on Osama bin Laden was so sterling that Sandy Berger was left stuffing official documents in his socks at the archives.

In Syria, the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers declared a foreign-policy “red line” about the use of chemical weapons . . . and then stood and watched as Assad gassed his own people. The Syrian civil war killed so many people that the world couldn’t get a reliable estimate, and waves of refugees poured into Europe, destabilizing European politics. Bashar al-Assad said he got rid of his chemical weapons, and the Obama team chose to believe him.

The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers offered Russia a “reset,” convinced that the Putin regime would come around now that the dreaded cowboy unilateralists were gone. Nearly two terms later, Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was left appealing to the consciences of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?” The answer is no, and that answer was clear long before 2016.

The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers insisted they had safely withdrawn from Iraq, and dismissed this group called ISIS as just the “jayvee team,” and then watched as the “jayvee team” created the Islamic State in the empty vacuum and set about committing genocide and launching and inspiring terrorist attacks all around the world.

The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers patted themselves on the back for “leading from behind” in Libya and then watched as American diplomats and security personnel got killed while begging for assistance in Benghazi. The U.S. has not had a significant diplomatic presence in Libya since 2014.

Russia rolled into Crimea, but the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers didn’t really do much. Russian forces shot down a civilian passenger airliner over Ukraine, but the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers dithered until the world’s anger faded. China repeatedly violated its treaty agreements, but the Obama administration believed Chinese promises to honor its commitments in the future.

Iran seized ten U.S. sailors in international waters, paraded images of their capture on state-run television, and the Obama administration thanked the regime for releasing them.

Iran built secret nuclear facilities, but the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers didn’t really do much. The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers pledged that the U.S. would never accept North Korea as a nuclear state . . . after North Korea tested nuclear weapons. The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers seem to think that the primary obstacle to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is that past American presidents just haven’t tried hard enough.

Foreign-policy makers such as these are always attending Holocaust Remembrance Day and decrying those who did nothing while the horrors of Nazi Germany raged, solemnly swearing “never again.” Then, while in office, they don’t do much of anything during Rwanda or Srebrenica or Sudan or massacres of the Yazidis or the Rohinga in Myanmar. Their life’s work amounts to opposing genocide in theory, but rarely if ever in practice.

The Democratic foreign-policy establishment has perfected the art of appearing as if it cares without actually caring.

The Neocons care, and want to act, even if those actions will often be destructive and have unforeseen consequences. They’re going to make a mess, and spend a lot in blood and treasure, but they’re hell-bent on punishing the world’s most malevolent leaders, regimes, and factions. Maybe you think that’s worthwhile, maybe you don’t, but it’s a coherent worldview that doesn’t rely on the pledges and promises of the world’s most ruthless regimes. The Trump-y isolationists don’t care, and openly say so. Agree or disagree, there’s something refreshingly honest about their lack of empathy and eagerness to tell the rest of the world that they’re on their own.

But the Democrats? The Democratic foreign-policy establishment never speaks or acts as if it faces a menu of difficult choices, with the risks of reacting too hard or too soft in the face of potential threats. It’s always convinced it knows just what to do, once it’s back in power. It’s always telling us that it can generate much better results because its people are so much smarter than everyone else. It understands the world so much better than the other guys. It points to the sterling resumes of its members and warm receptions at the Davos Summit and applause at the Aspen Ideas festival. In many cases, it has already met, conversed, and even dined with the figures who represent the preeminent challenges to U.S. foreign policy.

Every four years, the message is the same: Trust us, we’re the ones who know what we’re doing.

And yet, the oddest thing happens — the Democratic foreign-policy establishment gets in power, and a short while later, so many things go wrong.

One month ago, the president of the United States stood before this country and assured Americans that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.” “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Of course, all of that came to pass this past weekend.

It is fair to wonder if the people who keep telling us about how they’re the “grown-ups” and how they use “smart power” and “strategic empathy” really have spent decades looking at the world, as they claim. They seem to have spent decades looking in the mirror, falling in love with themselves, and walking around with a maddeningly overinflated sense of their own judgment and abilities.

ADDENDUM: Look, I understand the White House communications shop is probably panicking right now, and felt the need to rush out a photo of Joe Biden in action on Sunday afternoon. I’m just saying that when it tweeted out a photo of Biden in a teleconference with his advisers, it probably should have cropped out or blurred the two video monitors labeled “CIA” and “DOHA STATION.” Also note the administration’s painfully generic euphemism of the situation in the Situation Room: “This morning, the President and Vice President met with their national security team and senior officials to hear updates on the draw down of our civilian personnel in Afghanistan, evacuations of SIV applicants and other Afghan allies, and the ongoing security situation in Kabul.”

The U.S. used Army AH-64 Apache helicopters to clear crowds of panicked, desperate Afghans from the tarmac so a giant C-17 could take off. What we’re seeing on our screens today makes the 1975 evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon look orderly and smooth by comparison.

But in the eyes of this administration, it is just an “ongoing security situation.”

Health Care

Wading Through the COVID-Booster Messaging Mess

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A person receives a coronavirus vaccine at Floyd’s Family Pharmacy in Ponchatoula, La., August 5, 2021. (Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters)

On the menu today: What you need to know about boosters, and sorting through the U.S. government’s muddled and conflicting guidance on who needs a booster and when; a bit of spiking the football on the teachers’ unions and that big concert in Chicago; and further evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was doing research that it wanted to keep secret from the rest of the world.

How the CDC and FDA Have Made a Mess of the Messaging on Boosters

Nine days ago, the World Health Organization and its director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called for halting the use of COVID-vaccine boosters until at least the end of September. “I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant. But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it.”

The problem is that on July 7 — about five weeks ago — the Israeli Ministry of Health announced that, “since June 6th there was marked decline in the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing infection (64 percent) and symptomatic illness (64 percent). This decline has been observed simultaneously with the spread of the Delta variant in Israel. Nevertheless, the vaccine maintains an effectiveness rate of about 93 percent in preventing serious illness and hospitalization cases.”

We knew there was a good chance that the COVID vaccines would lose effectiveness over time. We knew there was a chance that a variant might come along that the vaccines couldn’t fight off as well. But it’s fair to wonder how many medical experts expected this much decline in effectiveness against symptomatic illness this fast.

Infection or symptomatic illness are not going to be major problems for most people, particularly those who are young and healthy. But for the immunocompromised and the elderly, a reinfection could turn into more serious problems. Yet in the name of global fairness, the WHO was effectively discouraging vaccinations among those most vulnerable to the Delta variant.

Government agencies, public-health experts, and vaccine manufacturers have offered some spectacularly mixed messages over the past six weeks. The day after Israel issued its warning about declining effectiveness, the CDC and the FDA issued a joint statement: “Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time.” But the following day, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals issued a statement declaring that, “based on the totality of the data they have to date, Pfizer and BioNTech believe that a third dose may be beneficial within 6 to 12 months following the second dose to maintain highest levels of protection.”

Keep in mind that the first vaccinated Americans got their first shot in mid December and were fully vaccinated by mid January — meaning they were hitting the six-month point in mid July. For perspective, six and a half months after President Joe Biden’s second shot was July 25.

As July turned into August, the federal government’s message was “you don’t need a booster” — even though each day, more Americans stepped over that six-month threshold. The folks who were vaccinated first were front-line health-care workers, residents and staffers at long-term-care facilities, and the elderly and the immunocompromised — the ones we least want to see experiencing a breakthrough infection.

Yes, the government mentioned the guidance could change, but it didn’t exactly emphasize that the guidance could change to “go get a booster” within a matter of weeks. Biden said on July 29 that, “Many of you are wondering if you’ll need a booster shot to add another layer of protection. As of now, my medical advisors say the answer is no. No American needs a booster now.”

Yesterday, the FDA ignored the WHO’s requests and authorized “an additional dose in certain immunocompromised individuals, specifically, solid organ transplant recipients or those who are diagnosed with conditions that are considered to have an equivalent level of immunocompromise.” The agency emphasized that “other individuals who are fully vaccinated are adequately protected and do not need an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine at this time.” (Sharp-eyed readers will notice that the FDA has stopped describing the fully vaccinated as “protected” and is now describing the fully vaccinated as “adequately protected.”)

And now a study from the Mayo Clinic offers bad news for those of us who got the Pfizer vaccine. The good news is that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines will keep you out of the hospital. The bad news is that, “In July researchers found Moderna’s vaccine was 76 percent effective at preventing infection among those fully vaccinated while Pfizer’s was 46 percent. Researchers noted that in July, cases of the delta variant became prevalent in states involved in the study.”

How safe are those vaccinated with Pfizer going to be in September? By Halloween? By Thanksgiving or Christmas? Will there be a point where the vaccine won’t keep you out of the hospital? Even if Delta Plus is just a slightly different version of the “regular” Delta variant, will our vaccinations be sufficiently protective against the Lambda variant or some other future variant?

There are some definitely not-insane-or-quack-ish medical experts who think that the virus is spreading quite a bit among vaccinated people, that a surprising number of vaccinated people are getting sick from breakthrough infections — although thankfully not dying — and that we should be rolling out boosters to the most vulnerable on a massive scale, ASAP. As Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina said to New York magazine:

Senior citizens, as they age, don’t have the cells to retain immunological memory very well. Now, if you keep getting vaccinated over five, six years, maybe they can start to build up a much greater cushion of protection. But so far these senior citizens and elderly people in our country and around the world have only been vaccinated twice. Without boosters, I think we should expect that their immune memory will start to wane by the fall.

If the 44 million American senior citizens who are fully vaccinated are going to need boosters in the fall, it is probably a good idea to start openly discussing this now — instead of mid August FDA statements declaring that “individuals who are fully vaccinated are adequately protected and do not need an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine at this time.”

In this context, it is hardly surprising that at least a million Americans have decided to get ahead of the curve and get a third shot. CDC director Rochelle Walensky is not pleased with this, declaring at the White House yesterday that people getting unauthorized third shots “undermine our ability to monitor safety in these contexts. So, we are asking people to follow our guidance, to follow what [the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] will say and the FDA will say in the coming day — several days, and to follow recommendations so we can we can follow safety signals here as well.”

We’ve had nine months of a relentless public-awareness campaign emphasizing that COVID vaccines save lives, and that anyone who is unvaccinated or insufficiently vaccinated is risking the lives of everyone around them. No public-health official should be surprised that some people are going for a third COVID shot.

A lot of the people most concerned about catching COVID-19 can see that the CDC and FDA announce decisions several weeks after other countries’ health ministries and departments do. We’re just approving a third dose for organ-transplant patients now, while the Israelis administered third doses to 754,000 senior citizens and immunocompromised people so far this month, and now the Israelis are giving a third shot to those 50 years old and up, health workers, and prisoners and prison staff. The Israeli public-health bureaucracy must be the only one in the world capable of sprinting.

I would not argue that the U.S. should outsource its health-policy decisions to the Israeli Health Ministry. But I do think that when the Israeli medical community says, “Hey, we’ve spotted a serious problem,” like it did five weeks ago, we should react as if they’re probably right. I don’t think the Israelis are vaccination addicts who are just freebasing uncut Pfizer these days.

I’m Often Right, but I’m Right Too Early, Part One

After several weeks of critics’ pointing out that their stance was indefensible nonsense built upon dubious statistics, the two largest teachers’ unions in the country, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, have dropped their opposition to vaccine mandates for school staff.

I’m Often Right, but I’m Right Too Early, Part Two

On August 9, eight days after the four-day Lollapalooza music festival ended, I wrote that “so far, no one can point to concrete data of a surge of sick Chicagoans caused by the festival.” A slew of people on social media argued that it was too early to make that assessment, that we couldn’t learn anything from the data four days after the festival ended, that the gathering of 385,000 people was reckless and dangerous even if everyone was vaccinated or recently tested negative, and that I was encouraging reckless behavior.

Then yesterday, two weeks after the festival began, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, declared there is no evidence that the city’s four-day Lollapalooza music festival was a super-spreader, that a grand total of 203 cases could be traced back to the festival, that four out of every 10,000 vaccinated attendees have reported testing positive, and that as of yesterday, no hospitalizations or deaths had occurred among any attendees. “There’s no evidence of substantial impact to the city of Chicago’s epidemiology,” she concluded.

I am sure that somebody, somewhere, will argue that Chicago has hundreds or thousands of sickened young people and a nefarious conspiracy is just hiding them somewhere. Perhaps the most plausible theory is that because it’s Chicago, many of the infected were shot before they could test positive.

The absolute certainty that Lollapalooza had to be a disastrous super-spreader event — an inherent assertion that vaccinations don’t work, even among young and healthy people — reminded me a great deal of the confident predictions of the Maskless Texas Apocalypse this spring.

Ben Domenech likes to say, “consider the possibility we are led by idiots.” I would add that, “Nine times out of ten, the person shrieking at you on social media is an idiot, bringing full suitcases of their own emotional and psychological baggage to their dispute with whatever you said.”

ADDENDUM: If you’re not following Alina Chan on Twitter, you really should. She recently observed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology published lots of data about viruses it isolated from mine shafts and caves . . . until 2016, and then it just stopped. “I find it less plausible that such a well-funded lab in its prime would suddenly not have any new viruses sampled or isolated between 2016 and 2019,” Chan observes. The more likely answer is that the Wuhan Institute of Virology stopped publishing what it was finding. (The U.S. government kept effectively funding the WIV, through grants to EcoAlliance, through 2019.)

So why would the Wuhan Institute of Virology want to keep its discoveries of new viruses secret?

Why, it’s almost as if the Institute’s research on viruses was dual-use and could be applied to the development of biological weapons or something.

Politics & Policy

The Intelligence Community Prepares to Punt on COVID-19’s Origin

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A technician works at a genetic testing laboratory of BGI in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, in 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)

On the menu today: A CNN report suggests that the U.S. intelligence community is preparing to shrug its shoulders and conclude that it can’t determine anything about the origin of COVID-19; America’s institutions fail to provide answers to the public when it needs them most; and the gap between what the president is saying and what is actually happening gets disturbingly wide.

We May Never Know COVID-19’s Origin

Gee, thanks a heap, U.S. intelligence community. From CNN:

Intelligence officials are nearing the end of a 90-day investigation into the origins of Covid-19 that was ordered by President Joe Biden and have drafted a classified report that is now in the preliminary review process, according to three sources familiar with the probe.

Sources familiar with the initial report say that after three months of poring over data and raw intelligence, the intelligence community is still divided over two theories — one suggesting the virus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China, and the other suggesting it jumped naturally to humans from animals, the sources said. The report as it stands now contains “nothing too earth shattering,” one source explained.

We knew there was little chance that this intelligence review was going to come out and say, “Yes, it was a lab leak,” and definitively resolve the question. But last week, CNN offered a report that indicated that the intelligence community had a promising lead, and it would take time to follow it to the end:

US intelligence agencies are digging through a treasure trove of genetic data that could be key to uncovering the origins of the coronavirus — as soon as they can decipher it.

This giant catalog of information contains genetic blueprints drawn from virus samples studied at the lab in Wuhan, China which some officials believe may have been the source of the Covid-19 outbreak, multiple people familiar with the matter tell CNN.

It’s unclear exactly how or when US intelligence agencies gained access to the information, but the machines involved in creating and processing this kind of genetic data from viruses are typically connected to external cloud-based servers — leaving open the possibility they were hacked, sources said.

Still, translating this mountain of raw data into usable information — which is only one part of the intelligence community’s 90-day push to uncover the pandemic’s origins — presents a range of challenges, including harnessing enough computing power to process it all. To do that, intelligence agencies are relying on supercomputers at the Department of Energy’s National Labs, a collection of 17 elite government research institutions.

There’s also a manpower issue. Not only do intelligence agencies need government scientists skilled enough to interpret complex genetic sequencing data and who have the proper security clearance, they also need to speak Mandarin, since the information is written in Chinese with a specialized vocabulary.

“Obviously there are scientists who are (security) cleared,” one source familiar with the intelligence told CNN. “But Mandarin-speaking ones who are cleared? That’s a very small pool. And not just any scientists, but ones who specialize in bio? So you can see how this quickly becomes difficult.”

Clearly, something in those genetic blueprints intrigues the intelligence community. Is it that they think one of those genetic blueprints drawn from virus samples studied at the Wuhan lab could match or be extraordinarily similar to — say, one mutation away from — the genetic blueprints drawn from the first cases of SARS-CoV-2?

Maybe. But if this CNN report is correct, the federal government’s finest and sharpest minds, and its best experts on China, will go back to the president and declare that, “For all we know, the emergence of a novel coronavirus most like those found in bats may have just coincidentally appeared right outside one of the three institutions in the world doing gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses in bats, the lab that our own people were operating unsafely. We have no idea what Jon Stewart is so fired up about.”

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, someone comfortably situated in government, a think-tank, academia, or the media, will write an op-ed or essay asking, “Why have Americans lost faith in their leaders and institutions?” And the op-ed will ignore, or barely mention, that 20 months after the pandemic started, the institutions assigned the duty of protecting us can’t even provide us with any clear answers of how we got into this calamity.

“How did the pandemic start?”

We don’t know.

“Is it safe to perform gain-of-function research on contagious viruses in the middle of a Chinese transportation and trade hub?”

We don’t know.

“Are wet markets ticking time bombs that offer the perfect environment for new viruses to jump from animals to people, and too dangerous to allow to continue operating?”

We don’t know.

“When did the Chinese government realize that it had a pandemic on its hands?”

We don’t know.

“How do we prevent the next pandemic?”

We don’t know.

The Continuing Adventures of ‘President Mr. Magoo’

Time for another round of “What President Biden Said Would Happen” vs. “What Is Actually Happening.”

What Biden said: Discussing Afghanistan, April 14: “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it — we’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely.”

What is happening: The Taliban has conquered ten provincial capitals, and continues to execute surrendering Afghan Army soldiers. The latest military assessment is that the Taliban will control Afghanistan within a few months. In conquered areas, the Taliban are going door to door, forcibly collecting twelve-year-old girls to be used as wives. The 20-year-anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is likely to be marked by the Taliban triumphantly returning to power. And U.S. “officials believe that a Taliban government in Afghanistan would not stop Al Qaeda from rebuilding and that it will eventually work toward attacks on foreign soil again.”

What Biden said: Discussing the Afghan army, July 9: “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.”

What is happening:Much of Afghanistan’s regular military surrendered to the Taliban or melted away, allowing the insurgents to seize nine of the country’s 34 provincial capitals and most of the countryside. . . . Special-operations commando units were the only part of Afghanistan’s U.S.-funded national security forces, theoretically numbering some 350,000 men, to consistently fight against the Taliban in recent weeks.”

What Biden said: Biden’s spokesman said in 2019 that, “He believes that we can secure our borders without abandoning our values.”

What is happening: After four months in which Customs and Border Protection agents encountered more than 170,000 migrants per month at the southern border, the number of encounters surpassed 200,000 in July. More than 1,000 migrants are being housed in a camp in McAllen, Texas, because they have tested positive for COVID-19.

What Biden said: Discussing inflation on July 19, President Biden insisted that, “The data shows that most of the price increases we’ve seen are — were expected and expected to be temporary. There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist.”

What is happening: In July, the Consumer Price Index rose 5.4 percent from a year earlier, in line with June’s figure and matching the largest jump since August 2008. What’s more, “Many economists expect higher inflation to persist for a while, though declining gradually. Those surveyed by The Wall Street Journal in July estimated on average that annual inflation, measured by the CPI, would slow to 4.1 percent in December.”

What Biden said: Discussing booster shots, July 29:I also know many of you are wondering if you’ll need a booster shot to add another layer of protection. As of now, my medical advisors say the answer is no. No American needs a booster now. But if the science tells us there’s a need for boosters, then that’s something we’ll do.”

What is happening: The FDA is “poised to amend the emergency use authorizations for the Pfizer and the Moderna Covid-19 vaccines Thursday to allow people with compromised immune systems to get a third dose. . . . The move would come after a panel of advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met in July and urged action on extra doses for immunocompromised adults. Doctors say it is increasingly clear that many such patients are still vulnerable to Covid following vaccination because they may not mount an effective immune response to the shots.”

What Biden said: In an op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine, January 23, 2020: “As president, I will elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy. I will reinvest in the diplomatic corps, which this administration has hollowed out, and put U.S. diplomacy back in the hands of genuine professionals.”

What is happening: “More than six months into Biden’s administration, only one of his ambassadors to another country has been confirmed,” NPR reports. “There’s no other country in the world, I think, probably that has ever had 80 vacant ambassadorships at one time,” said Ambassador Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomatic corps’ union. “And while I’m quite sure it’s not intended to be a signal of disrespect or lack of commitment to engagement with other countries, it can come across that way after a point.”

But I’m sure this can all be fixed with more speeches from the president declaring that “America is back!” and “declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”

ADDENDUM: A sharp observation from Phil Klein:

The deeper reason the Left is so eager to see DeSantis fail is that they don’t want to believe that they disrupted over a year of their lives following restrictions that may turn out to have been unnecessary. It’s comforting to believe that all of their sacrifices — forgoing vacations, missing meetings with friends and family, depriving their kids of in-person school, masking, and so on — served the noble goal of saving lives. It’s much harder to accept that it may not have made much of a difference. In an age when a crazy virus can come out of nowhere and wreak havoc, it’s human nature for people to want to feel as though they can assert control over it.

Health Care

The Air-Conditioning COVID-19 Wave

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Patients are treated for coronavirus at the Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson Parish, La., August 10, 2021. (Kathleen Flynn/Reuters)

On the menu today: While hospitals aren’t reaching capacity coast to coast, a lot of states have at least a few hospitals that are scrambling to expand capacity or divert patients. And where you’ll find the grimmest situations, you’ll find some of the hottest weather — raising the prospect that unvaccinated people spending time indoors, in air conditioning, is a key factor in the current wave. Also, a grim indicator of how far away the threshold of “herd immunity” is, and stray observations about Andrew Cuomo.

Delta Might Not Be the Only Reason for the COVID Wave

In the last two weeks, the average number of new COVID-19 infections per day across the United States increased 86 percent, to 118,067. That, by itself, is not a crisis; many of the infected remain asymptomatic, including the breakthrough infections of the vaccinated. But the average number of hospitalized patients per day has increased 85 percent, to 66,429 people, and that is worrisome — as well as the fact that the average daily number of new COVID-19 deaths has doubled in the past two weeks, to 608.

The severity of the pandemic varies significantly from state to state, but the reports of hospitals nearing or reaching capacity are starting to pile up:

Some people will look at the list of states above and say, “Ah-ha! Those insufficiently vaccinated red states are getting hit the hardest!” And that’s part of the story, but there’s something more going on here:

All of the people who are currently unvaccinated were unvaccinated back in May, June, and early July when we weren’t seeing these surges of new patients heading to hospitals. Some of this reflects the spread of the more-contagious Delta variant, but not all of it. By mid June, the Delta strain was 25 percent of all new cases; by July 3, it was 52 percent. In most of these places, cases continued to decline until the second week of July or so.

What do Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, southern California, and Oregon all have in common? They’re all really hot in July and August. (Yup, Oregon’s having intense heat waves this year, too.) Hot temperatures mean that people who aren’t at the beach, lake, or pool are spending more time indoors in air conditioning. More time indoors means more time in close contact with other people. More time in close contact with a COVID-19 variant that is as contagious as chicken pox means you get a faster and more far-reaching spread of the virus.

In May and June, outdoor temperatures weren’t as hot as they are now across the country — which means people spent less time in air-conditioning. This is indeed a pandemic of the unvaccinated — but it is particularly a pandemic of the unvaccinated in places where people are spending more time indoors.

This isn’t a perfect theory, as just about every corner of the U.S. gets hot in the summer. But there are some odd inconsistencies. Montana has 2,934 hospital beds statewide, and as of Monday, just 154 have COVID-19 patients in them. Montana is 44 percent vaccinated. North Dakota has more than 14 percent of its statewide beds available, even though just 40 percent of the state is fully vaccinated. And Wyoming is currently doing fine in ICU beds, even though just 37.1 percent of the state is fully vaccinated. Maybe these states are doing better because of their low population density. Or maybe people just aren’t gathering together indoors as much in these places.

This is an ominous indicator for northern states, because as autumn advances, outdoor temperatures will get colder, and people will spend more time indoors where it’s warmer.

There is one other grim figure in this latest wave of cases. King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, has almost 76 percent of its residents twelve and older fully vaccinated — one of the highest rates in the country, and a spectacular success story. Yet the county is still considered a “high transmission” area, with 121.7 cases per 100,000 residents — at least, in the week preceding August 2 — and the number of infections and hospitalizations are both increasing, although not really at crisis levels. We don’t know what the threshold for herd immunity is . . . but it apparently is higher than 76 percent.

ADDENDA: A fair joke from Iowahawk: “If you think the New York Jets are horrible at drafting personnel, you should see the New York Voters.”

Alexandra DeSanctis is correct that Andrew Cuomo resigned while insisting he didn’t really do anything wrong.

In the middle of yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch, my co-host Greg Corombos dropped a one-liner about New York’s past governors that made me nearly fall out of my chair laughing. (You may be able to hear me still trying to suppress laughter a few minutes later during one of the ad reads.)

Finally, why is it that many of the people who swooned the most for Cuomo were also the same people who swooned the most for Michael Avenatti?

Health Care

A Misleading Narrative about the Unvaccinated

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A volunteer is injected with a vaccine as he participates in a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

On the menu today: A new study finds that blacks and Hispanics remain less likely than their white counterparts to have received a vaccine, which complicates the convenient narrative that the COVID-19 pandemic continues because of stubborn, white, anti-vaccine Trump Republicans; CNN accuses Republicans of wanting to hurt children; Biden issues the weakest possible threat to the Taliban; and a hard lesson about the #MeToo movement.

America’s Unvaccinated Minority Groups

You don’t have to look far on social media to find people contending that the remaining unvaccinated are overwhelmingly Republicans, and that the reason the COVID-19 pandemic is still a factor in American life is irresponsible, stubborn Trump voters. Never mind that the New York Times did a good, thorough piece on August 1, laying out that the remaining unvaccinated people are not politically or culturally monolithic. Four days after this newsletter pointed out that America’s largest cities had significant percentages of the unvaccinated — well beyond the percentages that voted for Trump in the past election — the Times realized this as well and shared that fact with readers:

Part of the challenge is that the unvaccinated live in communities dotted throughout the United States, in both lightly and densely populated counties. Though some states like Missouri and Arkansas have significantly lagged the nation in vaccination rates, unvaccinated Americans are, to varying degrees, everywhere: In Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, 51 percent of residents are fully vaccinated. Los Angeles County is barely higher, at 53 percent. In Wake County, N.C., part of the liberal, high-tech Research Triangle area, the vaccination rate is 55 percent.

One less-discussed aspect of the remaining unvaccinated population is that the 2.5 million unvaccinated people in a place such as Los Angeles County are at considerably greater risk than those residing in, say, Smith County, Miss., which has one of the lowest partial-vaccination rates (27 percent have received at least one shot) of any county in the state with the lowest partial-vaccination rate in the country. Los Angeles County has 2,344 people per square mile, while Smith County has 26 people per square mile; city residents are just going to encounter more potentially infected and contagious people during their day.

Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a new study that didn’t get a lot of attention, probably because it didn’t fit the preexisting narrative: “While White adults account for the largest share (57 percent) of unvaccinated adults, Black and Hispanic people remain less likely than their White counterparts to have received a vaccine, leaving them at increased risk, particularly as the variant spreads.” (A bit more than 60 percent of Americans are classified in the census as white alone; 18.5 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 13.4 percent are Black, and about 6 percent are Asian.) The study continues:

As observed in prior weeks, Black and Hispanic people have received smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and compared to their shares of the total population in most states. The share of vaccinations received by Black people also continues to be smaller than their share of deaths in most states, although in some states it is similar to the share of deaths. The share of vaccinations received by Hispanic people is similar to or higher than their share of deaths in most reporting states, although in some states it continues to be lower. For example, in California, 30 percent of vaccinations have gone to Hispanic people, while they account for 63 percent of cases, 48 percent of deaths, and 40 percent of the total population in the state. Similarly, in the District of Columbia, Black people have received 43 percent of vaccinations, while they make up 56 percent of cases, 71 percent of deaths, and 46 percent of the total population. The size of these differences varies across states. The number of states where the shares of vaccinations received by Black and Hispanic people are more proportionate to their shares of the total population and/or their shares of cases or deaths in the state has grown over time.

As uncomfortable as this may make some people, if the U.S. vaccination effort in 2021 is considered a failure, it is so in considerable part because of a failure to convince members of minority groups to get vaccinated. The KFF study noted that:

As of August 2, less than half of Black and Hispanic people have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose in the vast majority of states reporting data. The vaccination rate for Black people is less than 50 percent in 38 of 42 reporting states, including 7 states where less than a third of Black people have received one or more doses. Similarly, less than half of Hispanic people have received a COVID-19 vaccine dose in 32 of 40 reporting states, including 9 states where less than a third have received at least one dose.

Right now, the four states that are getting hit the hardest by the Delta variant are Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. According to KFF’s data, the somewhat good news is that three of these states are seeing a surge in vaccinations — in some cases, across all ethnic lines:

Louisiana, which had the highest daily cases per million, had some of the largest percentage point vaccination rate increases across racial ethnic groups. Similarly, Mississippi had the second largest percentage point increase in the vaccination rate for Black people (3.1 percentage points from 35.6 percent to 38.7 percent), the third largest percentage point increase for White people (2.0 percentage points from 35.6 percent to 37.7 percent), and the fourth largest for Asian people (2.4 percentage points from 72.2 percent to 74.7 percent). Florida had the sixth largest increase in vaccination rates for White and Hispanic people and the ninth largest increase in the vaccination rate for Black people. Arkansas does not publicly report vaccination data by race/ethnicity.

The most commonly offered explanation for vaccine reluctance among blacks is the Tuskegee Experiment, although some dispute that explanation, and contend that black distrust of doctors and the medical community stems from much more recent negative experiences. From a February KQED article:

Those who don’t want the vaccine have very modern reasons for not wanting it. They tell Toler it’s because of religious beliefs, safety concerns or distrust for the former U.S. president and his relationship to science. Only a handful mention Tuskegee, she says, and when they do, they’re fuzzy on the details of what happened during the 40-year study.

The study was exposed and shut down in 1972, nearly 50 years ago. But for those who do cite Tuskegee as a reason to not get a COVID-19 vaccine, there seems to be an odd reluctance by national leaders to tell these skeptics the obvious: “The national vaccination effort against COVID-19 is not the Tuskegee Experiment all over again. This is part of a global effort to save every life we can, by ensuring that as many people as possible have antibodies to fight off the virus. Members of every ethnic group are dying from this virus, including yours. The vaccine works for every ethnic group, including yours. This is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.”

We should keep in mind that some people simply don’t want to be persuaded, and that these people come in every color, from every walk of life. Back in June, the Washington Football Team brought in “Kizzmekia S. Corbett, an immunologist and leading coronavirus vaccine researcher, to speak to players and coaches via video conference . . . to provide general information about the vaccines, answer questions and dispel any inaccuracies they might have heard.” Corbett is “the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center.” She recently joined Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health to continue vaccine-development research. She may well be the single most qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced person on Earth to answer anyone’s questions about the vaccine.

And yet somehow Washington defensive end Montez Sweat came away unimpressed. “I’m not a fan of [the vaccine],” Sweat said after listening to Corbett. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff. I’m not a fan of it at all. I haven’t caught COVID yet, so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.”

The notion that the remaining unvaccinated are “anti-science” Trump voters is reassuring to national media voices who prefer to believe all good things emanate from the Democratic Party and all bad things emanate from the GOP. Otherwise, they might have to criticize members of minority groups for holding out on getting vaccinated, and they’re just not comfortable doing that.

CNN: Ron DeSantis Is Trying to Kill Your Child

This morning, for what feels like the tenth day in a row, the lead story on CNN’s home page is a variation of “Florida governor Ron DeSantis is the devil.” Today, the headline on the home page is, “DeSantis feuds with school districts over school mask mandates,” although the headline when you click through is, “Kids are the victims of new GOP bid to politicize the pandemic.” Just think, the Democratic National Committee didn’t have to pay a dime for any of that.

Biden Threatens the Taliban with . . . a Lack of International Approval

Does anyone know what our Afghanistan policy is?

AP: “A U.S. peace envoy brought a warning to the Taliban on Tuesday that any government that comes to power through force in Afghanistan won’t be recognized internationally after a series of cities fell to the insurgent group in stunningly quick succession.”

They’re the Taliban. They throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, deny women the ability to leave home without an escort, and execute enemy fighters who surrender. Do you think they really care about international recognition?

ADDENDUM: The fact that the chairwoman of Time’s Up and the co-founder of its legal-defense fund was one of several prominent figures found to be involved in an effort to discredit one of Andrew Cuomo’s alleged victims doesn’t mean that every seemingly noble or righteous cause is a cynical, hypocritical racket in disguise. But it does reinforce the hard lesson that every seemingly noble or righteous cause will attract those who see that cause as an opportunity to run a cynical, hypocritical racket.

Health Care

Chicago’s Super-Spreader Event That Wasn’t

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Revelers at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago in 2011. (Jim Young/Reuters)

On the menu today: An alleged super-spreader event that . . . doesn’t appear to have spread the virus all that much; why American political pundits get obsessed with small, under-discussed European countries; a glaring omission in Hunter Biden’s memoir; and the country’s big plans for Friday.

Wait, Wasn’t Lollapalooza Supposed to Have Destroyed Chicago by Now?

The Lollapalooza music festival was held in Chicago from July 29 to August 1. The Chicago Sun-Times denounced the event as “unsafe” and “certain” to become “a super-spreader” — even though everyone who attended was required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past three days. Upwards of 385,000 people attended at least one day of the four-day festival.

Here’s the odd thing, though. This event, which was supposed to be a super-spreader, ended a week ago. The virus can incubate in a person for anywhere from two to 14 days. Eight days later, you would think we would be hearing about at least some calamitous consequences — large numbers of attendees testing positive for the virus, and perhaps even some attendees requiring hospitalization. City officials encouraged concertgoers to get themselves tested after attending. Keep in mind, the audience for these concerts is generally young people — and vaccinated young people are the demographic least likely to have a severe, or even symptomatic, reaction to infection.

According to the city of Chicago’s data, in the four days before the festival began — July 24 to July 28 — Chicago had 984 new cases. During the four days of the festival, Chicago reported 1,039 new cases — about a 5 percent increase from the previous four-day span. And in the first four days after the festival ended — August 2 to August 5 — Chicago reported 1,251 new cases of COVID-19, about a 20 percent increase from the span during the festival. (I would compare it to later periods of time, but August 5 looks like the last day of full data on the city’s website.) Someone could argue, “Egads! Increasing from 984 cases to 1,251 cases is a 27 percent jump!” And indeed it is . . . out of a city of 2.7 million people.

Among the demographic most likely to attend a music festival — those between the ages of 18 and 29 — there was a slight, irregular increase in the number of cases. Three days before the festival, 79 Chicagoans between 18 and 29 tested positive for COVID-19; the day after that, it was 73, and the day after that, it was 94. The day the festival ended, 50 Chicagoans between the ages of 18 and 29 tested positive for the virus. The day after that, it was 119; the day after that it was 113, and the day after that it was 84. Again — a slight increase, not a spike. And we don’t know whether any of these individuals attended the festival, interacted with anyone who did, or lived nearby.

But there was no surge in hospitalizations in Chicago in the days after the concert began, and no surge in deaths. On August 3, Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that any discernible rise in the city’s figures was not because of the festival, and that it tracked with pre-festival rate of increase. Perhaps she was just trying to defend the city’s decision to allow the concert to go forward. But so far, no one can point to concrete data of a surge of sick Chicagoans caused by the festival.

Looking at cases in the city is a crude measuring stick; many of the 100,000 or so daily attendees of Lollapalooza didn’t reside in Chicago. The statewide figures are somewhat grimmer. According to data on Worldometers, Illinois had 6,259 new cases in the four days before the festival, 6,269 new cases in the four days during the festival, and 8,094 new cases in the four days after the festival. An increase of about 1,800 cases looks bad at first glance, but in a state with 12.6 million people, it’s not easily noticed.

And while cases are rising, the state is nowhere near the point where local officials need to worry about hospital capacity. As of August 5, Illinois had 246 COVID patients occupying ICU beds — out of 3,176 ICU beds statewide. The state has about 1,200 COVID patients in hospital beds and about 7,700 open hospital beds statewide. Illinois is now averaging nearly 2,400 new cases diagnosed each day. And deaths did jump in the past week, from 39 to 64.

The upshot is that gatherings of vaccinated people and those with a recent negative COVID test are relatively safe — whether it’s a four-day music festival with hundreds of thousands of people or a grand party for a former president with several hundred people.

It is likely that many people feel as if they ought to denounce large gatherings of any kind — a bit of rhetorical muscle memory from 2020 — but they don’t feel there’s any particular danger to themselves attending a large gathering. We may find no clearer example of this than the pop star Demi Lovato.

On August 2, Lovato posted pictures of the Lollapalooza crowd on her Instagram and fumed, “C’MON Y’ALL!!! THERE IS STILL A PANDEMIC HAPPENING!!!” Last night, six days later, Lovato joined the band All Time Low on stage in Anaheim, Calif., before an audience of 9,000 people, at a concert festival that did not require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test.

Lost in a Crowd, and Hungary Like the Wolf

You may have noticed that with Tucker Carlson broadcasting his show from Budapest last week, a lot of people in politics who never wrote or talked much about Hungary before suddenly drew sweeping conclusions from Carlson’s stunt — either as a sign that conservatives are embracing autocracy and authoritarianism, or that “right-of-center thought leaders who want to figure out how to resist effectively will be coming to Budapest to observe, to talk, and to learn.” As Michael Brendan Dougherty put it, “I don’t think most people commenting on Hungary know what they’re talking about, and almost every foreign commentator is happy to be used by partisan actors in Hungary itself.”

Regardless of what you think of the rest of Jonah’s column on Friday, he’s right that it’s worth remembering that both the Left and the Right have these factions who choose to believe that some relatively under-discussed small country in Europe has got it all figured out. The American Left used to love Sweden and then moved on to other Nordic countries, and the American Right is now in love with Hungary. I’m sure you could find some other past examples of conservative odes to the simple traditional life in some European small towns.

Look at how Stanley Tucci offered this perfect romantic vision of rural Italian farmers, cheesemakers, vintners, and chefs on his CNN series, and compare that to Rod Dreher’s 2002 “Crunchy Cons.” It is tempting to believe that there’s some place out there that has got it all figured out, where life is simple and enjoyable, the bonds of family and community are strong, the connection to the land and nature is palpable, and all the problems that we seem to have here in America just aren’t factors in daily life. If we just do what they do, people think, we can live as happily as they do.

The thing is though, America has its rough equivalents of those bucolic little bergs; small towns where meth isn’t a bad problem and crime is low. But every societal facet represents a trade-off. These romantic little corners of Europe usually have little or no economic dynamism, and limited job opportunities. Their seemingly happy families have the same familiar story of young people who want something more than what their fathers and mothers did for a living, and who look to the big city for excitement and something new. This isn’t a unique feature of American capitalism or materialism; this is human nature.

But even if some corner of Hungary or Sweden or Denmark or Italy had built itself into a little slice of heaven, what worked for them, then and there, is not likely to work for the entire United States with our extraordinary political, economic, social, and cultural diversity from coast to coast. This exercise is something of a fool’s errand, looking at some other place through rose-colored glasses, often that of a tourist and not as a resident, and believing that good outcomes are easily replicated from country to country and culture to culture.

If You Don’t Want the Scrutiny, Don’t Write the Memoir

Boy, did this set off a stir yesterday. All I’m going to say is that if Hunter Biden wants to convince the world that he is a new man, more responsible and accountable and well along the road to redemption, his public contention that he is the father of four children and not five undermines his argument a great deal. One of his children was brought into this world in circumstances that embarrass him, and he wants to pretend that child doesn’t exist and for the rest of us to play along.

ADDENDUM: Today is August 9, meaning that sometime in the next 22 days, President Trump will be reinstated to the presidency! Or at least that was what the former president was telling people back in June. My Pillow Guy Mike Lindell was saying it would happen on August 13, so get ready, America, we’ve got a big week ahead.

I mean, it’s not like these guys are crazy or would lie, right?

Health Care

The Return of the Mask Wars

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A poster on a 42nd Street subway entrance amid Delta variant coronavirus cases rising in New York, N.Y., August 2, 2021. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

On the menu today: The New York Times editorial board calls for the return of mask mandates, in a spectacular demonstration of how the zero-COVID mentality wastes energy on symbolic fights instead of lasting solutions.

Are Mask Mandates Making a Comeback?
There’s something amusing about watching the New York Times editorial board talk itself into a policy that it knows deep down isn’t going to work, but that feels right and that it doesn’t want to been seen as publicly opposing:

Until vaccination rates increase, masks — and thus, mask mandates — will continue to be necessary. Resistance to this idea is understandable. The mask culture war has been exhausting; the people most likely to abide mandates are the same ones who need those mandates the least because they are already vaccinated; and in the long run it will be far more important to get people vaccinated than to pester them about face coverings. But public policies should reflect what science has made clear: Masks work.

When your mentality is that any vaccinated person interacting with any person who may not be vaccinated is a threat, and that threat must be mitigated at any cost, that is how you end up with National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins going on national television and telling parents to wear masks around their unvaccinated children: “For kids under twelve, that they avoid being in places where they might get infected, which means recommendations of mask-wearing in schools and at home. Parents of unvaccinated kids should be thoughtful about this, and the recommendation is to wear masks there as well. I know that’s uncomfortable. I know it seems weird, but it is the best way to protect your kids.” (Collins walked back his statement later in the day.)

Once again, we have public-health advice that is well suited for programmable robots but destined to cause friction among actual human beings.

It is fair to wonder if the editorial board of the Times reads its own paper or website. Because one click over, Dr. Jennifer B. Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Beth Blauer, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact, warily evaluate the return to mandatory-masking policies and ask a lot of questions.

“Bringing back masks for everyone will be most effective if a significant amount of Covid-19 transmission is occurring in public spaces like grocery stores and dance clubs,” they write. “But health officials haven’t shared sufficient data showing this is the case, and that’s a problem.”

Nuzzo and Blauer also write that, “Since vaccines offer durable protection against serious illness, tying masking requirements to reasonable vaccination coverage goals and acceptable hospitalizations levels will provide a clearer view of progress than case numbers, which can fluctuate.”

And this is where the recent return of masking mandates really starts to look bizarre.

Marin County, Calif., just announced a mask mandate for everyone indoors, and the county “strongly recommended” masks for crowded locations outdoors. An astounding 86.8 percent of the population twelve and over in Marin County is fully vaccinated.

The CDC is recommending masks in Chittenden and Essex Counties in Vermont. More than 85 percent of Chittenden County residents ages twelve and over have received at least one shot, and 58.8 percent of Essex residents ages twelve and over have received at least one shot. (Keep in mind, Essex County has fewer than 7,000 people and roughly nine people per square mile.) Overall, 84.2 percent of Vermont residents twelve and over have received at least one shot.

Starting yesterday in Westport, Conn., all staff and visitors in town buildings are required to wear a mask, as well as complete a temperature check. (Never mind the fact that temperature checks aren’t a reliable way to detect infection.) Almost 68 percent of residents in Westport are fully vaccinated; overall, 75 percent of Connecticut residents are fully vaccinated.

You can see where this is going. The most-heavily vaccinated counties in America are going to start wearing masks again, the least-vaccinated counties in America will not implement mask mandates, and the national news media will be full of people asking why the remaining unvaccinated don’t seem all that motivated to get their shots.

Then there’s the question of whether cloth masks are really all that effective against the Delta variant. The current verdict is it that it’s better than nothing, but you had better be wearing it correctly, according to Virginia Tech University environmental engineering professor Linsey Marr, who specializes in transmissions of infectious disease through aerosols:

MARR: Delta transmits in the same way as the other variants that we’ve seen so far. It’s just that people who are infected seem to release a lot more virus into the air. So, masks still work, but with Delta, we need better-performing masks.

STEIN: So, Marr says everyone should take a good look at their mask to make sure it’s good enough. A mask that filters out, say, 75 percent of viral particles might’ve been good enough before delta, but with delta, you really need a mask that’s going to filter out something more like 90 percent.

SIMON: So, what kind of mask would that be? Because a lot of people have gotten very used to using cloth masks or maybe surgical masks. Do they need to switch to something more like the N95?

STEIN: Well, those are the gold standard, and so are similar masks, like those KN95s. But Marr says cloth masks can still do the trick as long as they fit really well, and they’re made out of the right stuff.

MARR: Which means something that has a dedicated filter layer and that fits really well with no leaks.

STEIN: So it can’t fit loosely, you know, leaving gaps on your cheeks or under your chin where the virus could sneak in, and it should pinch tight over your nose. And if you’re wearing a cloth mask, it should have a layer made out of special filter material, not just regular cloth. If you’re not sure, you can hold your mask up to the light to see if you can see pinpricks of light through it. If you can, then it’s probably not good enough. Or, you know, another thing you can do is spray water through it in front of a mirror. If water gets through to the mirror, not good enough.

We could have Americans, coast to coast, holding their masks up to mirrors and spraying water and seeing if the mirror gets wet, like some bizarre national Mr. Wizard experiment. Or, you know, we could really focus our efforts on getting more people vaccinated.

Who do mask mandates protect? Let’s go back to Collins:

“Can you clear this up? Do most vaccinated Americans need to wear mask indoors in order to protect themselves and other vaccinated Americans, or is this primarily about protecting unvaccinated Americans, including children under 12 or people who are refusing to get vaccinated?” host Jake Tapper asked Collins on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“It’s mostly about protecting the unvaccinated. That’s where the real serious risks of illness are,” Collins responded.

So, mask mandates represent requiring people who are fully vaccinated, and who may well reside in areas with high vaccination rates, to put masks on that may not be all that effective against this variant, in order to protect kids who can’t get vaccinated yet and people who have chosen to not get vaccinated. And to the editorial board of the New York Times, this sounds like a swell idea.

There’s one last line in Nuzzo and Blauer’s piece that should be heeded by any American crafting public-health policy at any level: “The nation cannot simply revert to the broad tactics employed during previous surges and expect compliance.”

It’s not April 2020, it’s August 2021. People are tired of being told they can’t do what they want to do, even if they’ve done what they were told to do until now. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that, “37 percent say there should be more mask mandates, 32 percent say there should be fewer mandates, and 24 percent say that there are the right number of mask mandates.” (I’d love to see people answer a differently worded question of whether there should be more mask mandates in the community where they live.)

Keep in mind, as recently as June 30, CDC director Rochelle Walensky was going on television and saying fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks — even with the Delta variant spreading. Many Americans feel jerked around.

Think of public compliance with pandemic mitigation as a finite resource. Do we want to waste that compliance on masking? Or do we want to focus on the longer-term answer of getting people vaccinated? Those not-yet-vaccinated Americans might not be so unpersuadable. Yesterday 864,000 Americans got vaccinated.

Or, we could just re-hash all the masking fights from 2020, and the New York Times editorial board can feel good about themselves.

ADDENDA: No, WHO, wealthier countries are not obligated to forsake boosters and expose their senior citizens to higher risk so that poorer countries can catch up.

Aaron Ravin lays out how New York City’s envisioned vaccine-passport system is going to result in large numbers of minority New Yorkers turned away from establishments while large numbers of white New Yorkers are let in.

Nat Malkus calculates that less than half of the money Congress allocated to reopening schools will be spent on steps necessary to reopen schools or get them operating normally after the lengthy interruption. The rest will be spent on . . . whatever the local authorities think is a good idea.

Media

Biden and the Media Have Very Different Goals

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President Joe Biden speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, D.C., July 30, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: A lot of conservatives see the Biden administration and the national media as steadfast allies, but they actually want to achieve different goals, and sometimes that friction flares up into open conflict, such as with the coverage of the current state of the pandemic; wondering if teachers are as widely vaccinated as their unions claim; and throwing cold water on the suggestion that a vaccine mandate could be coming to your local elementary school.

The Differing Needs of the Biden Administration and the Media

The morning headlines:

From coast to coast, the situation sounds awfully grim! Now, look at some of the most recent items in the “briefing room” portion of the White House website:

That doesn’t sound like a country in dire straits! That sounds like an administration presiding over a calm, even prospering country, whose biggest problem is that the federal government is just not spending enough money.

The Biden administration thrives, at least by the metrics of television ratings and web traffic, when most Americans feel like the state of the country is good and improving. The media thrives, in the metrics of television ratings and web traffic, when most Americans feel as if things are going wrong and they need to follow the news to stay informed about the problems. Most conservatives think of Democrats and the national news media as allies, and no doubt, they see the world similarly and have a generally symbiotic relationship. The media are much easier on Democratic officials than they are on GOP ones. But the fundamental difference in what those two entities need periodically flares up into conflict.

That’s what spurred some Biden administration officials to gripe to CNN that the media were overhyping the threat of the Delta variant:

The White House is frustrated with what it views as alarmist, and in some instances flat-out misleading, news coverage about the Delta variant. That’s according to two senior Biden administration officials I spoke with Friday, both of whom requested anonymity to candidly offer their opinion on coverage of the CDC data released that suggests vaccinated Americans who become infected with the Delta coronavirus variant can infect others as easily as those who are unvaccinated.