The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information

Topics Filter?
Afghanistan Al Qaeda American Media American Military Arab Spring Bahrain Boris Johnson Brexit Britain Cockburn Family Coronavirus Donald Trump Economics Egypt Erdogan EU Foreign Policy Gaza Greece History Ideology Immigration Iran Iraq Iraq War Ireland ISIS Islam Israel Israel/Palestine Jeremy Corbyn Kurds Libya Mental Health Middle East Mohammed Bin Salman Northern Ireland Pakistan Russia Saudi Arabia Science Shias And Sunnis Syria Terrorism Tony Blair Turkey Yemen 2016 Election 2018 Election 9/11 Abi Bakar Baghdadi Ahmed Chalabi Al Nusra Front Arab Christianity Artifacts Assassinations Banking System Benghazi Benjamin Netanyahu Berlin Wall Birmingham Bowe Bergdahl Catalonia Charlie Hebdo China CIA Corruption Culture/Society David Cameron David Petraeus Disease Drone War Drones Drought Drugs Economic Sanctions Europe European Union Eurozone Fake News France Free Speech Freedom Of Speech Gaddafi Georgia Germany Haiti Hamas Health Care Hillary Clinton Hurricane India Internet Iran Nuclear Agreement Iran Sanctions Islamism Israel Lobby Jamal Khashoggi Japan Julian Assange KGL-9268 Lebanon Mali Marijuana Media Mental Illness Muqtada Al-Sadr Muslim Ban Muslims Narendra Modi Nationalism Neocons Neoliberalism Nigeria North Korea Nouri Al-Maliki Oil Industry Orlando Shooting Osama Bin Laden Oxfam Palestinians Panama Papers Paris Attacks Political Correctness Poverty Prince Andrew Qassem Soleimani Qatar Racism Recep Tayyip Erdogan Robert Mugabe Roger Casement Scotland Slavery South Korea Soviet Union Sudan Syriza Taliban Theresa May Torture Tunisia Twitter Ukraine Venezuela Vikings Wahhabis War Crimes War On Terror Wikileaks Winston Churchill World War I World War II Yasser Arafat Yazidis Zimbabwe
Nothing found
 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
🔊 Listen RSS

In October 2001 I was standing on a hilltop 40 miles north of Kabul watching US aircraft bomb the Taliban front line. The night sky was lit up with the flash of explosions and the sparkle of ineffectual anti-aircraft fire. It was fairly obvious who was going to come out the winner.

A few weeks later the US-backed anti-Taliban forces advanced south and captured Kabul without the Taliban putting up any resistance. It looked as if they had suffered a decisive military defeat which had ended forever their rule over Afghanistan. As their armies broke up, I drove to the southern city of Kandahar past ragged groups of Taliban fighters on their way home.

Except that they had not really been defeated and, 19 years later, the Taliban are closer than ever to regaining power in Afghanistan as the US withdraws the last of its troops. Under an agreement between the Taliban and the US signed on 29 February this year, the number of US soldiers in the country, which once exceeded 100,000, dropped to 8,600 this week and the remainder should be out of the country before the middle of next year.

The final withdrawal of US troops may come even earlier than that because President Trump would like to declare that he has brought back all American troops in Afghanistan before the US presidential election on 3 November. He tweeted on Wednesday: “Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary.” The Pentagon is none too happy about this, but keeping US troops in the country for a few more months, after almost two decades of failure, is not going to make much difference.

The return of the Taliban should not have come as quite such a surprise. When I got to Kandahar on my journey south from Kabul in 2001, I asked a local man if I could meet some of the surviving Taliban commanders. He said this would be no problem. We drove to his village not far from the city where we met half a dozen tough, confident-looking Taliban who said that they would go back to war if they were marginalised and not treated right.

By 2006, they had done just that and three years later their motorcycle patrols had cut the road between Kabul and Kandahar. The US increased the number of its troops and deluged the country with bombs and missiles. The US generals were always claiming that victory was just over the horizon, if only they had more forces and more time. They got both, but were unable to do more than hold the line against the Taliban, despite losing 2,400 US servicemen dead and 21,000 wounded.

The Americans were not the only ones to miscalculate. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul at the time, wrote in his memoirs that the worst mistake made by the Foreign Office in the previous 30 years was the invasion of Iraq, and the second worst was “its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain’s half-baked effort to occupy Helmand [in southern Afghanistan] in 2006”. Most of the 400 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan died in Helmand province in one of the most disastrous and ineffectual campaigns in British military history.

President Trump is trying to portray the US withdrawal as a peace agreement, but the peace he has agreed, such as it is, is between the US forces and the Taliban. Afghan government forces allied to the US have come under repeated attack. The crux of the peace agreement is the US withdrawal in return for Taliban assurances about their future actions.

There have been a few conciliatory signs such as an exchange of Taliban-government prisoners in the last few days. But elsewhere the war has gone on with the Taliban assaulting the northern city of Kunduz and making guerrilla attacks elsewhere. Earlier this month, Kabul witnessed one of the worst atrocities in decades of conflict when three gunmen, probably belonging to the local chapter of Isis, burst into the maternity ward of a hospital in the capital and shot to death at least 15 mothers, babies and medical staff. Most of the dead are reported to be Shia Muslims belonging to the Hazara ethnic minority who have long been a target of the fundamentalist Sunni Isis.

The Taliban denied involvement in the slaughter of the mothers and children, but they too have a history of anti-Shia bigotry and of persecuting the Hazara. In 2001, the Taliban famously blew up the 165-foot-tall 1,700-year-old Buddha statues in the Hazara heartlands in central Afghanistan.

There is a clue here to the future of Afghanistan and it is a grim one. Afghanistan is deeply divided by ethnicity, sect and tribe. Most Afghans I have spoken to over the years dislike the Taliban, though they may not like the spectacularly corrupt government and its forces any better. An attempt at a complete Taliban takeover will be resisted to the death by many, just as it was twenty years ago – which was why I was able to stay in an anti-Taliban enclave north of Kabul at the start of the bombing in 2001.

Could the outcome of the US-Taliban war, with Britain playing a bit part, have been any different? Militarily, the Taliban could never be put permanently out of business so long as they had the not-very covert support of Pakistan and could use Pakistani territory as their rear base and refuge. Trying to occupy Afghanistan has never proved a good idea for any foreign power. Reliance on a foreign sponsor like the US might prop up the central government, but this dependency robbed it of legitimacy and fuelled corruption. Billions of dollars in US aid and day-to-day expenditure meant that there was always plenty to steal.

Does anybody care about this in the US today when the 100,000 fatalities from coronavirus this year dwarfs the figure for American casualties in all its wars since Vietnam? Yet Trump’s gut political instincts are seldom wrong about what motivates the American voter; if he thinks that he will benefit from bringing back the troops, he is probably correct.

The American failure in Afghanistan is very real and it will be noticed in the rest of the world, preoccupied though people are by the pandemic. If the US is to retain the status of superpower, it needs to be seen as reasonably successful and competent in achieving its ends. On a much smaller scale the same is true of Britain. Nobody who witnessed the British state in action in the Iraq and Afghan wars will have been too surprised by its stumbling, poorly judged efforts to cope with the Covid-19 epidemic.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, American Military 
🔊 Listen RSS

Stop those non-humans who are writing and provoking our people,” says Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in an Instagram video. The non-humans he objects to are journalists who criticise the Chechen authorities for mishandling their response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

Given Kadyrov has faced allegations of torturing and disappearing critics (which the leader denies), he leaves nobody in any doubt about how unwelcome journalistic questions should be dealt with.

The cause of his rage was an article in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta by investigative journalist Elena Milashina, who cited Kadyrov as saying that people who spread the coronavirus are “worse than terrorists” and “should be killed”. As a result of these threats, Milashina wrote that people in Chechnya with Covid-19 were hiding their symptoms because they were too frightened to seek medical help.

Authoritarian and proto-fascist governments around the world are using Covid-19 to excuse or divert attention from the arrest, jailing and disappearance of critical journalists. Kadyrov, who acts as a quasi-independent Russian viceroy in Chechnya, is simply more blatant and violent than his counterparts, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India. In few such countries is repression new, but it is deepening by the day under a new guise.

Kadyrov’s actions in Chechnya are a crude but telling example of this toxic campaign against the independent media. The Chechen leader’s threats against Milashina was not the first time she has been targeted for her reporting in Chechnya: two years ago she broke the story of the “gay purge” in which gay men were being abducted, tortured and killed. This February she was assaulted in the lobby of a hotel in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where she was reporting on the trial of a blogger who had posted a film of luxury villas alleged to belong to people close to the Chechen leadership.

Governments worldwide claim that journalists are impeding their heroic struggle against coronavirus, but their real motive is more often to conceal the inadequacy of those efforts. Political elites everywhere fear that the pandemic will expose their incompetence and corruption, weakening their grip on political power and economic resources.

A report by Amnesty International, titled “Crackdown on journalists weakens efforts to tackle Covid-19”, contains a long and detailed list of offenders: new laws against disseminating “fake news” – the definition of which is to be decided by the authorities themselves – has been passed in Azerbaijan, Hungary, Russia, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania and in several Gulf states. The Hungarian leader Orban has amended the criminal code so journalists are threatened with five years in prison for “spreading false information” that would impede “successful protection” against the coronavirus.

Governments are highly sensitive to accusations that they are lying about the number of infections or fatalities: in Egypt a newspaper editor who challenged the official figures was disappeared for a month and a reporter who did the same in Venezuela was jailed for 12 days. In Bosnia, a doctor was charged with “misinformation” and creating “fear and panic” and faces a fine of €1,500 after posting on social media about the lack of ventilators and other equipment in a local hospital.

Leaders ignoring their own lockdown and physical distancing orders want to keep quiet about it: in Tanzania, the licence of the online newspaper Mawanachi was suspended after posting a photo of John Pombe Magufuli, the president, out shopping surrounded by a crowd of supporters.

The Turkish government has put extraordinary efforts into hunting down journalists and social media critics, 102 of whom are currently in jail, many accused of being “terrorists” or “spreading terrorist propaganda” – a charge often levelled in Turkey against any critic. No fewer than 64 social media users have been detained in recent weeks over posts about coronavirus.

No sign of dissent or independent information is too small to escape the authorities’ notice: when Ismet Cigit and Gungor Aslan wrote on a news website about two Covid-19 deaths in a local hospital, they were immediately detained and questioned. And even a short detention in Turkey could be a death sentence because overcrowded prisons are hotspots for the epidemic.

Most culpable are states such as India, whose security measures are preventing attempts to lessen the spread of the pandemic. In Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, the lockdown predates the rest of the world, starting last August when Modi’s government revoked the special status of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

An internet blackout was imposed for 175 days and when it was restored it was in the form of the slow-moving 2G network. But even this, along with other communications, such as the telephone, is subject to sudden and prolonged blackouts nominally aimed at separatists, but in practice hampering or stopping the campaign to prevent Covid-19.

The Indian government has tried with some success to suppress local and foreign media reporting from inside Kashmir, but a special report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir, reveals a health system damaged by the constant blackouts. “We were shocked that we had to work without the internet even for a week during the pandemic,” said one Srinagar-based hospital doctor, speaking anonymously, adding that the government had told health professionals not to talk to the press.

Tracking and tracing of Covid-19 victims is made impossible in Kashmir by interrupted communications. A health department official, again speaking anonymously, said there was no way of finding and testing victims during the blackouts, explaining that “it was impossible to trace the contacts of Covid-positive cases during those three days [in early May] as there was no way of reaching out to people”. Paradoxically, Modi has told everybody including Kashmiris to download a contact-tracing app on their phones as a prime means of identifying, testing and isolating those infected by the virus.

Journalists in Kashmir who report about the extent to which draconian security measures have hobbled efforts to suppress the epidemic find themselves accused of glorifying “anti-nationalist activities” and causing “fear or alarm in the minds of the public”.

Autocratic governments everywhere are becoming more autocratic and repressive regimes more repressive. They believe that they can get away with it: frightened peoples are looking to their governments to save them in this time of peril, and do not want to discover that they are ruled by incompetent people determined to serve their own interests and stay in power.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Coronavirus, Free Speech 
🔊 Listen RSS

The US and UK are the nation states that have performed worst in the world in coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Americans and Britons make up more than a third of the 300,000 people worldwide who have died from Covid-19. They have paid the ultimate price for their governments’ slow and incompetent response to the spread of the disease.

Both countries have obvious points in common that explain their excess fatalities: Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are nativist demagogues skilled in winning elections, but not in coping with real crises as opposed to the ones they invent or exaggerate. Their critics had long predicted disaster if either man became national leader and this has finally happened.

I had thought that Trump and later Johnson were safer than they looked so long as they avoided real crises. I was thinking primarily of wars, probably in the Middle East, in the case of Trump. But for all his verbal belligerence towards Iran, he has stopped just short of a full-scale military conflict over the last three years.

In the case of Johnson, I believed that he would muddle through and, if there was a true crisis it would be to do with a no-deal Brexit. This seemed unlikely because he has a track record of carrying out U-turns and retreats while announcing famous victories: this week the government quietly admitted that there would indeed be border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, though Johnson had repeatedly denied conceding this as the price of last October’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

It was the pandemic that turned Trump’s and Johnson’s character and behavioural flaws into lethal failings that have since killed many people. Both had risen to power by skilfully exploiting nativist fears and ambitions and scapegoating foreigners at home and abroad. They had become like a pair of conmen who have been successfully peddling lies and fantasies, but who must suddenly grapple with a highly-dangerous reality.

In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, an amiable British businessman selling vacuum cleaners in pre-Castro Cuba bamboozles MI6 by inventing a string of well-paid secret agents. He passes off his scaled-up drawing of a vacuum cleaner as a mysterious weapon of mass destruction. As an accidental conman, he believes that he is safe from trouble because neither his agents nor the secret they have discovered actually exist, but because there are those who believe his imaginings, he unexpectedly has to deal with a dangerous reality in which real people begin to die.

Trump and Johnson are both like Greene’s conman in that they suddenly had to deal with a real crisis instead of a fictional one. Unsurprisingly, they have been manifestly incompetent in doing so with the result that their highly-developed countries lead the world in the number of deaths. In dealing with the all-too-real lethal coronavirus, they have not only done worse than powerful well-resourced states like Germany and South Korea, but also worse than poor and weak ones like Slovakia in Europe and Kerala in India.

Neither leader has risen to the challenge. Instead, it is the most negative and damaging aspects of their personalities that have become more pronounced under pressure. Trump was always self-obsessed, mendacious and authoritarian, but he has visibly turned into a ranting megalomaniac in the last five months.

Johnson, for his part, was always a shambolic opportunist, at one moment aping Shakespeare’s Falstaff and, at another, Winston Churchill in 1940, but it is the present catastrophe that made his poor judgement and contempt for facts such a lethal combination.

Trump’s performance is the more extraordinary: for long he denied the seriousness of the outbreak, refused to coordinate measures against it, publicised crackpot ideas on how to cure it, ignored or dismissed experts trying fight the virus. The government scientist, Rick Bright, once in charge of the critical task of developing a vaccine against coronavirus, testified this week before congress about how he was sacked because, among other reasons, he refused to endorse an anti-malaria drug favoured as an antidote for Covid-19 by Trump without any scientific evidence.

The main US public health institution, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), once played a crucial role in combating malaria and polio. But today it is led by Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee, who once controversially headed the Pentagon’s response to HIV-Aids in the 1980s. When Trump horrified doctors in April by suggesting that coronavirus victims inject themselves with disinfectant, the CDC showed the degree to which it had been cowed into submission by contenting itself with reasserting that consumers should read the instructions that come with the medicine.

Because half of Americans – and a higher proportion in the rest of the world – have always thought of Trump as a crackpot, the moment that this transformed into dangerous mania has not had the impact it might have had otherwise. Even so, it is extraordinary to watch Trump – like that Roman Emperor who claimed to have conquered the sea – boast of great American victories over the virus.

Johnson’s political approach has always been a muted and cosier version of Trumpism, adapted to British political conditions. Both men are political campaigners of proven effectiveness. plugging into nativist fears and ambitions. In contrast to Trump’s divisiveness, Johnson specialises in appeals to national unity and support for the NHS, yet the consequence of having these two leaders in office during the pandemic has in both cases been a great number of people dying.

What Trump’s terrifying megalomania has achieved in the US is being replicated in the UK by the drip-drip of government incompetence and poor decision-making: the slow response to the onset of the epidemic, the lack of equipment, the famously inadequate number of tests. Daily press conferences were at first seen as a sign of government openness, but it has since become apparent that the confident-looking ministers and health officials did not know how many people were infected or had died.

Foolish decisions led to the shifting of 15,000 untested elderly patients from hospital to care homes where they inevitably infected others. Heroic but untested carers and nurses became the unwitting carriers of the disease to patients and each other. Much of this was obvious to anybody with common sense which was why so many seriously ill people decided not to go near a hospital and have died at home.

🔊 Listen RSS

The shadowy figures of well-armed Isis gunmen can be seen making an attack in the plains of northern Iraq on an outpost held by paramilitary fighters loyal to the Iraqi government.

Some four of the latter are killed by a roadside bomb. Isis specialises in publicising its successful military actions online to show that it remains a force to be feared, despite the destruction of the so-called caliphate and the killing last year of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The appalling atrocities committed by Isis at the height of its power ensure that any sign that the movement is back in business creates a thrill of horror at home and abroad. But, while it is true that Isis has been launching an increased number of pin-prick guerrilla actions in Iraq and Syria in recent months, the effect of these can be exaggerated. The assaults are still very limited compared to what happened in the years leading up to Isis’s capture of Mosul in 2014, along with much of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Without the advantage of surprise this time around and with no military vacuum to fill, it is unlikely that Isis can resurrect itself.

Coronavirus appears to pose another dangerous threat to Iraq with its ramshackle public health system and millions of potential victims packed together. Iraq shares a long common border with Iran where Covid-19 is rife. Perhaps it is only a matter of time and the pandemic may yet devastate Iraq, but it has not done so for reasons that are obscure, but may include a young population and stringent curfews.

This focus on Isis and coronavirus as the prime threats to Iraq diverts attention from an even greater danger that faces the country, as it does other Middle East oil exporters. In Iraq the threat is at its most acute because its 38 million people are only just emerging from 40 years of crisis and war.

Iraqis remain deeply divided and have the ill luck to live in a country that is the arena where the US and Iran have chosen to fight out their differences. It feels like a bygone era, but it was only in January that the US assassinated the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani with a drone at Baghdad airport and came close to war with Iran.

The problem for Iraq is simple but insoluble: it is running out of money as its oil revenues fall off a cliff, following the collapse in the oil price brought about by the cataclysmic economic impact of coronavirus. It derives 90 per cent of government revenues from the export of crude oil, but in April it earnt just $1.4bn when it needed $5bn to cover salaries, pensions and other state expenditure.

It cannot pay the 4.5 million people on the government payroll and another four million receiving a pension. This may not seem like exciting news compared to an uptick in Isis killings or the potential ravages of Covid-19, but it may prove more profoundly destabilising than either.

“The government has not paid pensions so far this month, though it keeps promising it will do so in a couple of days,” says Kamran Karadaghi, an Iraqi commentator and former presidential chief of staff. “They don’t have the cash.” Rumours are spreading in Baghdad that state salaries will be cut by 20 or 30 per cent. Immediate disaster can be fended of by borrowing and drawing down reserves, but there is a limit to how long these can replace lost oil revenues.

Iraq – and other oil exporters in the Middle East – will not get much sympathy internationally in a world suffering from lockdown and unprecedented economic turmoil. The future may be particularly bleak in Iraq, but the other oil states producers are under similar pressures. Indeed, the era of the super-rich oil producers that began with the great oil prices in the first half of the 1970s may be coming to an end.

The problem is that reliance on oil exports displaces most other forms of economic activity: everybody wants to work for the government because that is where the best jobs are. Private business becomes parasitic on a corrupt state to make money. Everything is imported and nothing is produced locally. A corrupt elite monopolises wealth and power.

Iraq has just acquired a new government headed by Mustafa al-Khadimi, a former intelligence chief who was a long-term opponent of Saddam Hussein, and who will now have to grapple with horrendous financial problems. One former Iraqi minister told me several years ago, that the only time he had seen an Iraqi cabinet really panic was not when Isis was battering at the gates of Baghdad, but when the price of oil had fallen more than usually sharply. This time around, the decline in the price is much worse than ever before from the point of view of the producers, and though the price has rallied from its nadir in April, there is little chance of its full recovery

Protests started in Baghdad in October last year when demonstrators demanded jobs, an end to corruption and better public services, such as electricity and water. At least 700 protesters were killed and 15,000 wounded. People did not believe they were getting a fair share of the economic cake then, and the cake is about to get considerably smaller.

The same anger is felt against predatory elites in resource-rich states from Angola to Saudi Arabia, but the elites are not alone in benefiting from the present system whereby anybody with the right connections – family, sect, ethnicity, political party – can get a job. Ministries become the cash cows of different interests. It would not take much for the protests to start again.

Isis is not the threat to Iraq that some imagine and a young population may not be vulnerable to coronavirus, but the knock-on effect of a prolonged drop in the price of oil brought about by the pandemic will be profoundly destabilising for the Middle East as a whole.

• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Coronavirus, Iraq, ISIS, Oil Industry 
🔊 Listen RSS

“Go to China!”, a woman in Denver, Colorado, shouts at two hospital workers standing in front of her car to prevent her from taking part in a protest against the coronavirus lockdown. Her cry is a sign that President Trump is having some success in demonising China: he says that that he has a “high degree of confidence” that the deadly virus emanated from a laboratory in Wuhan, though he cannot reveal the source of his information.

The level of Trump’s mendacity is far grosser than that used to sell the Iraq War by claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Then too there were stories of secret laboratories developing biological weapons. Though Trump is purging US intelligence chiefs and replacing them with Trump loyalists, even they could not stomach his latest conspiracy theory. “The intelligence also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified,” said a statement from the office of the director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell.

The purpose of Trump’s lies is not to convince by rational argument but to dominate the news agenda by outrageous allegations. This simple PR trick has previously worked well for him, but scapegoating China may not be enough to divert attention away from the price Americans have paid for his calamitous mishandling of the pandemic. The casualty figures tell their own grim story: in China there have been 84,373 cases of the illness and 4,643 deaths while in the US there have been just over 1.1 million cases and 64,460 deaths. Trump loyalists will claim that the Chinese are lying, but then they must also explain away the lower loss of life in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

The strategy is crude, but demonising China as “The Yellow Peril” might just work on election day. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban – attack China,” says a 57-page memo sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to Republican candidates, advising them on how to rebut criticism of the president’s actions. Joe Biden, the Democratic Party presidential candidate, is already being pilloried by the Republicans as “Beijing Biden”. In an epidemic, people are frightened and seek a scapegoat, foreigners at home and abroad being an obvious target. Probably only a hate-driven conspiracy theory can keep Trump in the White House when 30 million Americans are unemployed.

Many of those who used WMD to deliver a hot war against Iraq in 2003, are the same people who promote a cold war against China today. This approach requires an extraordinary degree of irresponsibility: Trump is launching his cold war against China just when a global medical and economic response is needed to counter a virus that has spread from Tajikistan to the upper Amazon and can only be suppressed or contained by international action.

It is surely disastrous historical bad luck that this unprecedented global threat is occurring just as independent nation states are re-emerging, in so far as they ever disappeared, as the essential players on the international stage at the expense of international institutions: the UN and EU were losing influence pre-epidemic and have been marginalised since in the last six months. Nation states are not only very much back in business, but they are increasingly run by far-right nativist populist leaders, of whom Trump is only one of the more crazed examples. Most of these are proving highly incompetent in dealing with the pandemic and none are likely to favour international cooperation.

The real problem here is the US: international organisations like the UN and agencies like the World Health Organisation only exerted real influence when backed by Washington. Often accused of being American puppets, they enjoyed a degree of autonomy and effectiveness because the US needed to outsource some of its power in order to maintain its global hegemony. Trump is abandoning this calculation.

The new cold war against China was already gathering momentum before the pandemic. Western political establishments have long been wobbling between opposing China as a rival superpower and cultivating it as an economic powerhouse whose explosive if debt-fuelled expansion helped drag the rest of the world out of the post-2008 recession.

The post-1945 Cold War was fought by the US and its allies against the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991; this coincided after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 with a cold war against Iran and Iraq which were alternately portrayed as the source of all evil. Trump is unlikely to demote Iran from its present demonic status but he is clearly intent on portraying China as equally evil. Many politically palatable reasons for this will be advanced in the coming months, but the real charge against China is one of effectiveness. It has shown itself more competent than other powerful states in dealing with two world crises: the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic of 2019-20.

The decline of the US as a superpower is not total: it plays a hegemonic role in the world financial system. But its post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that, despite vast expenditure, its armed forces could not deliver victory and the pandemic is demonstrating that its equally expensive health system is appallingly unequal and inadequate.

Trump is a symptom as well as a cause of the polarisation of the US political system, more divided now than at any time since the Civil War ended in 1865. Yet the decline of the US is much greater than the rise of China, significant though that may be, and it is naive to imagine that Beijing will simply displace Washington at the top table.

In reality, nobody is going to replace the US, but there will be a rush of other countries moving to fill the vacuum left by its absence. Much of this would have happened anyway as US economic and political primacy eroded. But the process by which this is happening has been speeded up by two wild cards that nobody even knew were in the pack: the election of Trump as president in 2016 and the Covid-19 pandemic. The world is currently full of nation states, and not just China, who see threats and opportunities all around them. The result will be ever-increasing turmoil.

🔊 Listen RSS

In the summer of 2011, riots erupted all over London and television screens and newspapers were filled with pictures of blazing buildings and looted shops. People swiftly noted that among those not present in the capital was the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who was with his family in a camper van in the Canadian Rockies on a holiday from which he showed great reluctance to return.

As London burned, the excuses for Johnson’s absence by City Hall became more and more embarrassing: he was said to be against “rewarding” the rioters by flying back to London precipitously; he claimed that he must stay in Canada because his then wife was unable to drive the Winnebago camper van.

When he did come back to London – sometime after the prime minister, David Cameron, and the home secretary, Theresa May, had rushed back from their own holidays – he went straight to Clapham in south London, which had suffered particularly badly in the riots. He was greeted at first by jeering residents, but he seized a broom and held it aloft as a symbol of his determination to lead the clean-up of the debris left by the riots. Hand clapping replaced the booing, though some distraught shopkeepers later said that there was no evidence that Johnson had actually used his broom. Politically, this did not matter: the gesture was enough and Johnson was re-elected mayor the following year, his political career, and wider ambition to be prime minister, undamaged.

Given his track record, nobody should have been too surprised that the prime minister was on the millionaires’ island of Mustique in the Caribbean when China first told the WHO on 31 December that an unusual type of pneumonia had been identified in Wuhan. The pandemic was well underway in February when he took a 12-day “working holiday” and missed five emergency Cobra meetings about coronavirus before succumbing to the virus himself in March. Most politicians would have been damaged by these voluntary and involuntary disappearances in such a mega crisis, but, instead, he may return to Downing Street in the next few days, his popularity enhanced by accidentally achieving the martyr status of “wounded in action” in the war against coronavirus.

More is at work here than sympathy for a sick man: Johnson plugs into the traditional English sympathy for the lovable rogue with an engaging personality who has faults but very human ones to which everybody can relate; quintessentially English, he is never downhearted and is difficult to hate. This fondness for jocular Falstaffian figures has a long history and it is, indeed, not for nothing that Shakespeare’s Falstaff was his most popular creation.

Yet it is important to keep in mind, as Johnson enjoys physical and political rejuvenation, that his jolly but self-confident amateurism is all too genuine and, unlike 2011, his mistakes cause real misery and loss of life. Note, for instance, that the death rate for Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland is two-thirds of that in Northern Ireland and the explanation for this is that on 12 March, Britain – including Northern Ireland – abandoned contact tracing and restricted testing, which it is now desperately trying to resume, while the Irish government followed WHO guidelines and expanded testing and contact tracing. In other words, if 18,738 people have died from coronavirus in the UK, then as many as 6,000 may have died unnecessarily because of mistakes by Johnson and the government that he has created in his own image.

Once a bungler, always a bungler – and the bungles are not going to stop simply because the man most responsible for them has personal experience of coronavirus. Johnson’s failings might not matter so much if Britain was only trying to cope with the consequences of Brexit. He might even have been the right man for the job because, going by his agile retreat over the Withdrawal Agreement last October, he is skilful in announcing famous but non-existent victories and masking concessions with sub-Churchillian bombast and defiance.

The ineptitude of the Brexiteers is more dangerous than Brexit itself: Johnson and his lieutenants gained power by exaggerating or inventing danger, such as the supposed threat to British independence from the EU. And it is this very skill in inflating threats and boosting opportunities conveniently just over the horizon, that makes a Brexiteer government peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with an all too real and terrible crisis. Suddenly the slogans are no longer enough – upbeat words stubbornly refuse to turn into deeds and serve only to hide and drift an uncertain strategy.

The government’s defence gambit is to say that all along it has been only “following the science”, though it is obvious from the beginning that scientists radically disagree about what should be done. It was the chief medical officer Chris Whitty and the chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance who backed “mitigation”, or herd immunity, for a critical period – contrary to the best practice in South Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore. Paradoxically, the very same Brexiteers who had once repeatedly denounced experts who criticised their favourite project now demand that the words of their medical experts who advise them should be treated as divinely inspired utterances that must be obeyed.

Political leaders do not have to judge the validity of scientific arguments themselves, but they do need to appoint people who can correctly do so. History is full of examples of distinguished scientists who got things very wrong: Professor Lindemann, Winston Churchill’s friend and scientific adviser, argued in the 1930s for the development of aerial mines hanging from parachutes as a way of defending Britain from future German air attack, while others suggested that radar might be the better option.

A pandemic is by its nature an international event since the coronavirus knows no national frontiers. It is therefore unlucky that Britain should be ruled by people who are fanatical believers in the nation state and sceptical about cooperation with the rest of Europe. Regardless of whether it was ministers or civil servants who were to blame for failing to participate in joint procurement with the EU of essential medical equipment, this was clearly something to which the government had given little priority.

Austerity has hollowed out the British state at home and Brexit has weakened it abroad. Worse, those in charge of promoting those projects are in power with no chance of replacing them, however poorly they perform. Strong local government institutions are essential to carrying out the new mantra of tracking, tracing and testing, but these have been cut back to the point that it is doubtful if they can carry out such a vast undertaking.

Presiding over this catastrophe will be Boris Johnson, exuding optimism and praising the “fantastic” and “amazing” work of almost everybody, regardless of achievement. He will speak of the spirit of 1940, but so far his performance is closer to that of those bonhomous but disastrous British generals in the First World War. About one such general, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a bitter poem with striking current relevance: “‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack / As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack / But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Coronavirus 
🔊 Listen RSS

“Where does incompetence end and crime begin?” asked an appalled German chancellor in the First World War on learning that his chief military commander planned to renew his bloody but futile attacks on the western front.

President Trump is showing a similar disastrous inability during the coronavirus pandemic to shift away from his well-tried tactics of claiming non-existent successes and blaming everybody for his blunders except for himself. It is his first true crisis in his three years in the White House and, like that German general, he is visibly incapable of changing the way he deals with it.

Much virtual ink has been spilled over the last three years about the ineptitude and isolationism of the Trump presidency, and how far it will erode American hegemony. The pandemic has posed the question more starkly than ever before, but it has also provided something of an answer. Crudely put, the US will not remain the one single superpower if the rest of the world sees evidence day after day that the country is run by a crackpot who cannot cope with a global calamity.

More is at stake here than the future of the Trump presidency. Over the past decade, Trumpian nationalist populist leaders have taken power all around the world, and they too are being tested and found wanting. Without exception, they have shown themselves to be better at winning (or fixing) elections than they are at combating the virus. Some admit the gravity of the outbreak, but use it to enhance their power and silence their critics. Others reject social distancing and restrictive measures as unnecessary, or denounce them as a hoax cooked up by the media. What comes across in all these cases is that Trumpian regimes, for all their self-serving talk of threats, do not know what to do when there is a real threat to their nation.

In India, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, locked down his country with just four hours’ notice, forcing millions of jobless migrant labourers with little money or food to trek hundreds of miles to their home villages.

In Brazil, the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, took an opposite tack, downplaying the crisis and defying his own health ministry’s appeal for social distancing by going into the street to buy doughnuts and mingle with his supporters: one film shows him wiping his nose with his wrist before shaking hands with an elderly woman.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is reluctant to do anything to stall the Turkish economy and is jailing journalists who say he is not doing enough for victims of the virus. In Hungary, the prime minister, Viktor Orban, used the pandemic as an excuse to pass a law suspending elections and enabling him to rule indefinitely by decree. The dire state of underfunded Hungarian hospitals is ignored.

What might be loosely called the Trump playbook – though much of it predates Trump, and has been used by populist nationalist demagogues through history – falls short when it comes to dealing effectively with a real rather than a concocted crisis. However, comforting though it would be to suppose that this would discredit leaders who pretend to be national saviours, this does not necessarily follow. In places such as Hungary, Turkey and India, the media is largely under the control of the ruling party, and news of its mismanagement of the crisis will be suppressed regardless of the toll.

Yet the pandemic is exposing the weaknesses of regimes from Washington to Delhi and Sao Paulo to Budapest. Autocracy has its disadvantages since, at the core of these governments, is a supreme leader with devoted followers who believe that he can do no wrong. Trump may have drawn back from his claim that he enjoys monarchical powers and can do without Congress, but the boast shows his authoritarian inclinations.

Crises expose the poor judgement of such dictatorial regimes, where leaders surround themselves with cheerleaders and courtiers who tell them what they want to hear. A diplomat in Baghdad once told me that among the senior lieutenants of Saddam Hussein, the only safe course was “to be 10 per cent tougher than the boss”. Trump may not shoot advisers who contradict him, like Saddam did, but he does sack them and shows equal intolerance towards dissenting views as the Iraqi dictator.

The Trumpian generation of leaders suffers from a further disadvantage: they come from deeply polarised countries, and are both the symptom and cause of those divisions. Minorities are persecuted: Muslims in India; Kurds in Turkey; Latin American immigrants in the US. The new authoritarians are happy to rule countries that are split down the middle, but they are finding that successfully fighting a pandemic requires a higher degree of national cohesion than they can deliver.

The pandemic will rock many of these regimes, but censorship and aggressive government PR may limit its political impact. The devastating Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 only gained its name because Spain was one of the few countries that did not censor accounts of its ravages.

The coronavirus may ebb, or news of it be suppressed, but it will be impossible to hide the deep economic depression likely to follow in its wake. It was the Great Crash of 1929 that led to the rise of Hitler and the advance of communism, fuelling ever-increasing political violence in the 1930s. A post-pandemic Great Depression mark II may have a similarly explosive political effect, turning the 2020s into the same sort of troubled time in our century as the 1930s were in the last. Rival nation-states will once again confront each other and international organisations such as the UN and the EU, as with the League of Nations of old, will retreat into irrelevance. Enhanced international cooperation and integration, which once appeared to be where the world was heading, are turning out to be a mirage.

As Trump presides over the break-up of the international order and the ebb-tide of US hegemony, it is difficult to think of any historic figure that precisely resembles him. But one contender should surely be Kaiser Wilhelm II, the swaggering, opinionated German emperor with catastrophically poor judgement, who led his country to defeat in the First World War. As with Trump, he warned – somewhat prematurely – of the rise of China and “the yellow peril”. And, again like Trump, he forecast that the great crisis that he could not cope with would soon be over, promising his soldiers in 1914 that they “would be home before the leaves fall”.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Coronavirus, Donald Trump, Nationalism 
🔊 Listen RSS

I was walking in the early evening down an empty street in Canterbury, wondering how residents were coping with fear and isolation stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. People living there must have been in their houses judging by the cars parked outside, but there were few lights in the windows suggesting that they were in their kitchens out the back.

The silence was complete aside from the twitter of birds, eerie but magical, reminding me of streets in Beirut or Baghdad during a lull in the fighting. But then Lebanese and Iraqis have all had too much experience of crises when it was too risky to set foot outside one’s own home. For people in Canterbury it is a new and worrying experience.

I had my worst experience of loneliness when I was six years old in 1956 and I caught polio in an epidemic in Cork. An ambulance took me to a ward in St Finbarr’s hospital in Cork city which only doctors, nurses and clergy were allowed to enter. I had grown up within a tight family group and felt frightened and bewildered. One day I saw my parents waving their hands frantically and with manically cheerful smiles on the other side of an oval window in a door leading into the ward.

I discovered early on that reading was the easiest way to escape from an unappealing world. As a child, I would become wholly absorbed in historical adventure stories by the once vastly popular G A Henty and, rather more contemporary ones set in or around the two world wars by Captain WE Johns, featuring the war heroes Biggles and Gimlet.

As a foreign reporter my luggage used to be weighed down with books to fend off potential tedium. A hazard for journalists specialising in the Middle East was once a call from a Libyan diplomatic mission saying that one had been granted an exclusive interview with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

This sounded too good to be true and so it was, but was difficult to turn down, even though one was aware that the Libyans had probably made the same promise of exclusivity to a dozen journalists and there was a better than even chance that none of us would see the mercurial Gaddafi. Since the only way to find this out for sure was to go to Tripoli and wait, I travelled with a full helping of Jane Austen. I would lie on my bed in the hotel in Tripoli reading Pride and Prejudice, Emma or Mansfield Park, disappearing into the country house world of the early 19th century English gentry.

More fraught situations required a less genteel reading list: wars require boring periods of waiting for something to happen and I discovered that an effective antidote to tedium or self-pity was books about even nastier conflicts, like the battles of Verdun or Stalingrad, showing that, however bad things might be for oneself, they had been a great deal worse for others.

In the coronavirus pandemic, as has happened in past wars, politicians make irritating efforts to evoke wartime spirit and camaraderie. The media highlights upbeat items designed to demonstrate national solidarity and raise morale.

The tone is unnecessarily patronising since most people are capable of dealing with a solitary or uncertain existence so long as it does not go on too long and they and their family are together and not under direct threat. The worst affected in most crises are people who were not doing too well pre-crisis: an adviser in a Citizens Advice Bureau told me that she was most worried about what would happen to her mentally ill clients who not only could not operate online, but are frightened of telephones.

Curiously, the pandemic has re-established the use of the telephone as the best way of keeping in touch with friends and colleagues. I have always found emails to be a chilly and not very satisfactory way of making contact with people. In the present lockdown, many others have reached the same conclusion. Telecommunication companies in the US say that they had expected a big increase to be in the use of the internet, but found instead that the number of phone calls has increased much faster and are twice what they used to be.

My experience of coping with isolation and loneliness has to do mostly with armed conflict in places like Belfast, Grozny, Baghdad, Beirut and Benghazi. At first glance, this would seem to fit in neatly with what happens to people facing lockdown and possible infection today. Certainly there are points in common, but the analogy is not as helpful as it might seem.

The Covid-19 pandemic is really not like a war despite innumerable comparisons: the number of fatalities caused by the virus worldwide totals around 100,000 compared to an estimated 20 million deaths in the First World War and 56 million in the 1939-45 conflict.

In one respect, however, the pandemic is very similar to a war: they are reported the same way by the media. War reporting tends to mislead, not so much because of “the fog of war” or propaganda, but because it dwells so exclusively on melodrama; reports of epidemics are equally sensationalist and catastrophist.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a well-established principle of the news business and always will be. Political leaders, for their part, revel in threat inflation as it puts them centre stage and enables them to extend their authority without opposition. The cruellest current example of this epidemic-fuelled authoritarianism is in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a lockdown with only four hours’ notice, forcing millions of unemployed migrant labourers to take to the roads in a desperate bid to reach their home villages. In South Africa shanty towns, police beat people for not staying in their houses full time even when their house consists of a few pieces of plywood and corrugated iron.

As with war reporting, objective and substantiated information is difficult to come by despite, or even because of, the tidal wave of news. How far, for instance, does the death rate in each country exceed the normal death rate for this time of year? The vulnerable health service workers in every country are being rightly lauded for their selfless courage, but does the significantly lower death rate in Veneto compared to Lombardy reflect the fact that fewer patients are hospitalised in the former region and the hospitals themselves may be a prime source of fatal infections?

There is a politics of pandemics, just as there is a politics of war in which conspiracy theories abound. In the small but vicious polio epidemic in Cork, where I caught the disease, as in Wuhan today, local people were convinced that the authorities were lying about the number of fatalities and were secretly burying the dead in mass graves.

A pandemic, like a war, requires decision making in circumstances in which crucial information is scant or unreliable. The cooperation of many countries and individuals is needed to stop a war or an epidemic disease, which explains why it takes so long to end them.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Coronavirus, Disease 
🔊 Listen RSS

Government leaders everywhere are calling for their people to wage war against the coronavirus outbreak, recalling past victories in an effort to boost public morale. In Britain, politicians cite the Second World War as a suitable example of determined and successful resistance to a terrifying enemy.

Yet the faltering response of the British authorities to the Covid-19 pandemic so far is much closer to the failures of 1914 than anything that happened in 1940. The parallels are striking between the crisis today and the one that exploded on the world just over a hundred years ago. Then as now there was poor leadership – inadequately prepared and hampered by an initially mistaken strategy – sending frontline forces over the top to suffer massive losses. The difference is that then the casualties were in the British army and today they are in the NHS.

“Lions led by donkeys,” was the phrase used to condemn the waste of lives by incompetent First World War generals and their political masters. The same words could be used again today: once the shortages were of machine guns and artillery shells while now they are of ventilators, surgical masks and testing kits. The common feature is that in both cases the shortage will kill or disable a proportion of those who do not receive essential equipment.

The analogy could go on: the best trained troops of the British Expeditionary Force were all but wiped out in the first months of fighting and were replaced by enthusiastic but ill-trained volunteers. How will all those volunteering for service in Covid-19 hospitals fare when they begin to fill up?

Overdramatic? A pandemic is not the same as war? Governments around the world are already talking of potentially millions of dead unless the virus is brought under control. It is disrupting life and destroying economies on a scale not seen since 1945.

An excuse for the stumbling performance of most governments is that this crisis is unprecedented. Although China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore put their experience with the Sars epidemic to good use. Again the best comparison is with 1914 which was the first great international military conflict since the Napoleonic Wars a hundred years earlier. Come the Second World War people had plenty of grim experience of what such an earth-shaking conflict would be like.

But this does not quite explain why British political and scientific leadership has been visibly worse than almost all other developed countries. From the beginning, the authorities underestimated the gravity of the crisis: only five-and-a-half weeks ago, on 21 February, a meeting of government scientific advisers concluded that Covid-19 posed only a “moderate risk” to Britain. This was well after the epidemic had swept through China, where there were already 75,465 cases and 2,236 deaths, and was spreading to South Korea, Taiwan, Iran, Italy and France.

Scientific panjandrums who have since become television celebrities, such as the pandemic modeller Neil Ferguson, were at the meeting. But there appeared little objections raised to the conclusion directly afterwards. A quarter of a million people were allowed to attend the Cheltenham Festival on 10 to 13 March, only ten days before Boris Johnson said that everybody should stay at home and not gather in large numbers to avoid the spread of the deadly virus. These were miscalculations of First World War dimensions and are already exacting a heavy toll in human lives.

The government appears to think in slogans and not in joined up policies. “Get Brexit Done” has been replaced by “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. There is an amateur air about all that is done: giant drive-through testing facilities were opened at Chessington World of Adventures and Ikea at Wembley, but nobody from the NHS was let in without a email giving them an appointment, something almost impossible to obtain.

A counterpart to the British tradition of amateurism is an exaggerated respect for supposed experts. In times of trouble, everybody looks for saviours with magical powers: a hundred years ago this was to be Kitchener and today we hope that the chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, both articulate confident professionals, know a feasible way out of the crisis.

Yet it was Whitty and Vallance who presided over the initial disastrous flirtation with “herd immunity” – let most people get the illness aside from the most vulnerable – that was only abandoned on 16 March. Since then ministers have tried to distance themselves from a strategy that is condemned by almost everybody, even President Trump, who, with shameless hypocrisy, has described it as “catastrophic”.

Critics unkindly point out that this political distancing will not work since Dr David Halpern, a senior Downing Street official, gave an interview five days before the government’s U-turn, confirming that official policy was to protect the most vulnerable so by the time they emerged from their cocooning, “herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

The government is racking up an impressive record of poor judgement and inability to translate words into action. Why did it adopt a policy so different from the rest of Europe and Asia and contrary to that advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). One explanation is probably that a Brexiteer cabinet, whose members had spent three years lauding the virtues of British separatism and exceptionalism, found nothing strange about going their own way. Another is that the British have always had difficulty in taking on board that they can learn anything from the experience of other nations and must wait until it happens to them.

There are other dangers on the horizon that might be averted if the experience of past world crises is taken into account. It is important not to overreact to chaos by putting some outside figure as head of medical procurement like Churchill’s appointment of his friend and ally Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of The Daily Express, as minister of aircraft production in 1940, in the mistaken belief that he would “energise” the aircraft industry.

But according to General Sir Alan Brooke, the supremely competent British chief of staff, he disrupted the carefully planned output of different types of aircraft. Brooke was particularly enraged when Beaverbrook used armour needed for tanks to make his own entirely useless armoured car, called the Beaverette, to be supplied to the Home Guard. His other stunt was to organise a campaign whereby kitchen utensils – along with ornamental railings – were collected as scrap that were supposed to be melted down to be turned into aircraft: “we will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons.” By most accounts, municipal dumps were full of useless and unused scrap by the end of the war.

• Category: History • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus, World War II 
🔊 Listen RSS

The US may be reaching its “Chernobyl moment” as it fails to lead in combating the coronavirus epidemic. As with the nuclear accident in the Soviet Union in 1986, a cataclysm is exposing systemic failings that have already weakened US hegemony in the world. Whatever the outcome of the pandemic, nobody is today looking to Washington for a solution to the crisis.

The fall in US influence was visible this week at virtual meetings of world leaders where the main US diplomatic effort was devoted to an abortive attempt to persuade the others to sign a statement referring to the “Wuhan virus”, as part of a campaign to blame China for the coronavirus epidemic. Demonising others as a diversion from one’s own shortcomings is a central feature of President Trump’s political tactics. Arkansas Republican senator Tom Cotton took up the same theme, saying that “China unleashed this plague on the world, and China has to be held accountable”.

US failure goes far beyond Trump’s toxic political style: American supremacy in the world since the Second World War has been rooted in its unique capacity to get things done internationally by persuasion or by the threat or use of force. But the inability of Washington to respond adequately to Covid-19 shows that this is no longer the case and crystallises a perception that American competence is vanishing. The change in attitude is important because superpowers, such as the British Empire, the Soviet Union in the recent past or the US today, depend on a degree of bluff. They cannot afford to put their all-powerful image to the test too often because they cannot be seen to fail: an exaggerated picture of British strength was shattered by the Suez Crisis in 1956, as was that of the Soviet Union by the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The coronavirus crisis is the equivalent of Suez and Afghanistan for Trump’s America. Indeed, these crises seem minor compared to the Covid-19 pandemic, which will have far greater impact because everybody on the planet is a potential victim and feels threatened. Faced with such a mega-crisis, the failure of the Trump administration to lead responsibly is proving extraordinarily destructive to the US position in the world.

The decline of the US is usually seen as the counterpart to the rise of China – and China has, at least for the moment, successfully got a grip on its own epidemic. It is the Chinese who are sending ventilators and medical teams to Italy and face masks to Africa. Italians note that the other EU states all ignored Italy’s desperate appeal for medical equipment and only China responded. A Chinese charity sent 300,000 face masks to Belgium in a container on which was written the slogan “Unity Makes Strength” in French, Flemish and Chinese.

Such exercises in “soft power” may have limited influence once the crisis is over, though this is likely to be a long time coming. But, while it does so, the message is going out that China can provide essential equipment and expertise at a critical moment and the US cannot. These changes in perception are not going to disappear overnight.

Prophecies that the US is in a state of decline have been two a penny almost as long as the US emerged from the Second World War as the greatest superpower. Yet the much-heralded downfall of the American empire has kept being postponed or has seen others decline even faster, notably the Soviet Union. Critics of “US decline-ism” explain that, while the US may no longer dominate the world economy to the degree it once did, it still has 800 bases around the world and a military budget of $748bn.

Yet the inability of the US military to use its technical prowess to win wars in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq has shown how little it has got in return for its vast expenditure.

Trump has not started any wars despite his bellicose rhetoric, but he has used the power of the US Treasury rather than the Pentagon. By imposing tight economic sanctions on Iran and threatening other countries with economic warfare, he has demonstrated the degree to which the US controls the world financial system.

But these arguments about the rise or decline of the US as an economic and military power miss a more important point that should be obvious. The very real decline of the US as a global power, as exemplified by the coronavirus pandemic crisis, has less to do with guns and money than many suppose, and much more to do with Trump himself as both the symptom and cause of American decline.

Put simply, the US is no longer a country that the rest of the world wants to emulate or, if they do, the emulators tend to be authoritarian nativist demagogues or despots. Their admiration is warmly welcomed: witness Trump’s embrace of the Hindu nationalist Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his cultivation of the younger generation of tyrants such as Kim Jung-un in North Korea and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.

Democratic and despotic rulers will, at least at first, be strengthened by the pandemic, since in times of acute crisis people want to see their governments as saviours who know what they are doing.

But demagogues like Trump and his equivalents around the world are seldom much good at handling real crises, because they have risen to power by exploiting ethnic and sectarian hatreds, scapegoating their opponents and boosting their own mythical achievements.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Coronavirus, Donald Trump 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

Personal Classics
Full Story of the Taliban's Amazing Jailbreak
"They Can't Even Protect Themselves, So What Can They Do For Me?"
"All Hell is Breaking Loose with Muqtada" Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr