Political Animal

Russia and Turkey Just Escalated a War While You Weren’t Watching

Russia and Turkey just escalated their two-front war over which country will be the big dog in the Middle East. The two rivals have been at this game for a couple of centuries, but it just got a lot more serious this week when Russia introduced jet fighters into the Libyan civil war.

Coronavirus may have shut down Texas beauty parlors and Louisiana bars, stopped international travel, and cleared streets across the globe, but hasn’t brought war to a halt. Rather, Russia and Turkey are in the midst of a multifront proxy escalation in both Libya and Syria.

Russians have long memories. They recall when Imperial Russia fought Ottoman Turkey in the bloody Crimean War. Ottoman Muslim forces fought Christian Tsarist troops on the Black Sea peninsula, where more fighters fell to the Asiatic cholera epidemic than on the battlefield.

Turkey won. Russia today, however, once again occupies Crimea. The 19th-century Crimean War was the crucible in which were forged Russo-Turkish antagonisms and their 21st-century imperial dreams.

Both Russia and Turkey want to take advantage of a dysfunctional and shrinking European Union, a solipsistic America and a China focused on consolidating power in its own neighborhood first. The global pandemic provides an opening for two ambitious nations to both stand their ground and stake new claims.

Syria and Libya may seem like booby prizes, but what happens in Damascus and Tripoli matters. It certainly matters to the victims of indiscriminate killings. People have deeply suffered in Syria, under the brutal Assad regimes and, since 2011, when a Syrian version of the Arab Awakening was quickly quashed. Images of the total destruction of Raqqa and Aleppo look like post-World War II Berlin.

Russians targeted and ran air sorties hitting hospitals, schools, and any infrastructure providing solace and survival. Bashar Assad’s Russian-supported regime sought total annihilation and rebel capitulation. Most of the nation was brought to its knees by Putin and Assad’s one-two punch.

The only hope for normalcy and peace was in Syria’s northeast—a predominantly Kurdish region—where until 2018, well-protected American forces had a minimal presence and maximal effect. It was a relatively safe American military investment for an active role in the region’s future. The U.S. presence guaranteed the safety and security of the region’s toughest anti-ISIS fighters: the Kurds.

What blew-up this accommodation was not a Russian bomb or a Syrian troop incursion. What upset this American humanitarian effort and the fragile balance of power was a single, unexpected and capitulating White House phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The gist of the conversation? America was pulling out; Turkey could move in.

America’s departure was Turkey’s invitation to run amok. The cost? Syrian lives, regional stability, American credibility, allies’ trust and a seriously messed-up neighborhood with no immediate prospect for lasting peace. Russia and Turkey continue their violent geopolitical game in Syria, testing each other’s will to grab what they can and dig in where they must

Moscow and Ankara, fighting for influence, oil and a bigger Mediterranean footprint, have now also squared off in North Africa. Libya is the new theater for both soldiers of fortune and modern imperial forces. Russia’s introduction of advanced fighter planes indicates that things started to go south for Moscow’s ally, opposition leader General Khalifa Haftar.

Two major fighting forces act as Turkish and Russian proxies. One, the U.N.-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, is partly underwritten and fully supported by Turkey and is fighting for dear life. The other is Haftar’s Russian-tied insurgent group with a base of operations in Benghazi. Haftar claims popular legitimacy, seeks international recognition and, until recently, was rapidly closing in on Libya’s capital, Tripoli. The place is a hot mess.

Libyan lawlessness and violence make the country ungovernable. That makes it the perfect place for drug runners, migrant smugglers, arms dealers, oil thieves and marauding men terrorizing innocent citizens.

Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey pump up their respective Libyan teams’ sides and pretend to broker ceasefires. Lulls in battle allow the warring factions to regroup and jockey for international advantage and sympathy in this endless on-again, off-again war.

Vladimir Putin longs for the days of the Soviet Union. Erdoğan pines for the Ottoman Empire’s lost glory. Both leaders are facing political challenges at home as the coronavirus crisis runs rampant throughout their countries. During these unsettling times at home, there is no better distraction for faltering leaders than a foreign war against a traditional foe. Turkey and Russia are just warming up.

Wartime presidents capitalize on national pride and military adventure. The losers of these ill-considered and vain wars invariably are civilians. Last weekend reminded us that Memorial Days come and go, but memories of hardship, horror and war inevitably fade—even as global conflicts flare anew.

In Minneapolis, a Police Union Gone Rogue

Back in the summer of 2008, the Republicans held their national convention in my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota. The city braced for protests, while some law enforcement leaders spread lies about reports of coming violence. As a result, police officers from all over the state joined city and county officers to stage a response.

Recognizing the potential for escalation between protesters and police officers, a group of local citizens formed the MN Peace Team to mediate between the two groups.

By Andrew Ciscel

I tell that story because the same thing is happening right now in Minneapolis in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. According to the Facebook post of this photo, “This is a line of white people forming a barrier between black protestors and the police.”

By Tim Druck

While the actions of these citizens are both courageous and laudable, it frankly breaks my heart because it is such a vivid demonstration of all that is wrong with law enforcement in this country. After all, it is supposed to be their job to be “peace officers.”

With stories about black reporters covering the unrest in Minneapolis being arrested while white reporters are left alone, it is important to keep in mind that the story might be even deeper than that. Here is video of a man wearing the kind of gas mask issued to riot police while carrying an umbrella (on a sunny day) and wielding a hammer to break storefront windows.

There are those on Twitter who claim to have identified the man as a local police officer, but I’ll refrain from doing so until we get something official.

The reason I am suspicious is that I know a thing or two about how things work with the police department in Minneapolis. Here is what I tweeted about that recently.

To get some idea of the battle that goes on between the mayor and the police union, here is a story that was reported about a year ago.

In open defiance of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, the union that represents the city’s roughly 900 rank-and-file police officers announced that it is partnering with a national police organization to offer free “warrior-style” training for any officer who wants it…

The announcement comes in response to Frey’s ban of the popular training style, which he first revealed in his State of the City address last week. Frey said at the time that Minneapolis would become the first department in the country to eliminate “fear-based” training…

Many policing agencies, including Minneapolis’, are moving toward “guardian”-oriented tactics, which focus on de-escalating tense situations and use of deadly force as a last resort. But opponents of this approach argue that such techniques endanger officers’ lives by teaching them to let their guard down.

So the mayor banned the use of this “warrior-style” training, with concurrence from the city’s police chief. But the union defied the ban and subsidized the training for officers anyway. It is also the police union that has defended Officer Derek Chauvin, the one who kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for over seven minutes, when he was the target of 18 prior complaints.

I am sympathetic to those who claim that officers like Chauvin are the “bad apples” in departments where honorable men and women serve. I’ve personally known police officers who earned the title of being peace officers. But as they say, “the fish rots from the head,” and it is clear that the police union in Minneapolis went rogue a long time ago.

It is also worth noting that there is a political angle to all of this. Not only did Trump tweet that Mayor Frey is “very weak,” he went on to blast out the threat of “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” I suspect that the president remembers what happened when he came to Minneapolis last fall.

Lt. Bob Kroll, the head of the Minneapolis police union, took the stage prior to President Donald Trump at a downtown rally Thursday night, praising the president for standing behind law enforcement.

“The mayor said the President wasn’t welcome but the Police Federation of Minneapolis begs to differ,” Kroll told the rally crowd.

Kroll, the president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, wore a bright red “Cops for Trump” T-shirt, and spoke at Target Center about how the president supports police departments across the country as they face scrutiny following years of high-profile police shootings.

“The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable,” Kroll said. “The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around … he decided to start let cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of (on) us.”

That would be the same president who likes to talk about “the good old days.”

In most instances, Democrats are right to defend the unions that represent civil servants from attempts by Republicans to break them. But at least for the city of Minneapolis, lives are on the line and nothing is going to change until the power of the police federation is held in check.

Why Does Trump Defy Congress to Arm the Saudis?

With so many bad things going on simultaneously, it’s easy for some things to go unnoticed or be forgotten. Earlier in May, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was fired by President Trump. This was done at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The initial suspicion was that Pompeo didn’t appreciate being investigated for using an employee as a personal servant for himself and his wife. But it was later revealed that Linick “was in the final stages of an investigation into whether the administration had acted illegally when officials declared the emergency” with respect to Iran to justify an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Specifically, Linick was trying to establish whether this bit of jujutsu passed constitutional muster.

Republicans and Democrats were enraged last year when the administration declared an emergency over Iran to bypass Congress and move forward with an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations…

…Bipartisan outrage erupted in Congress last year over the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia after the administration’s tepid response to the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident. Lawmakers have also blamed the administration for aggravating the Yemen crisis and for the killing of civilians there in the five-year civil war, which has helped create the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.

But each time lawmakers have tried to curtail Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, Mr. Trump has intervened. The president used his first veto to reject legislation that would have ended the United States’ military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and he later vetoed a bipartisan measure blocking the sale of billions of dollars of munitions to the kingdom.

I guess it’s a judgment call whether a president can circumvent a congressional hold on an arms sale by disingenuously citing the threat of a separate country. But the administration is apparently preparing a repeat performance:

The new proposal would effectively build off the sale pushed through over Congress’s objections last year, sending an additional 7,500 precision-guided missiles from Raytheon to Riyadh on top of the 60,000 bombs Saudi officials bought last summer, according to a congressional aide who described it on the condition of anonymity because it had not yet been officially turned over to Congress. As of December, roughly a third of those munitions had been delivered.

Perhaps more significant, it would allow Raytheon to expand an already approved relationship with the Saudis to build high-tech bomb parts in Saudi Arabia.

Two weeks ago, the FBI inadvertently published the name of a Saudi diplomat who helped two of the 9/11 hijackers while they were in the United States. It’s unlikely the man did this on his own initiative. Separately, the FBI reported that one of the gunmen in the 2019 terrorist attack on a military base in Pensacola was sent here by the Saudis to train despite being in regular contact with al-Qaeda. Congress has already made it clear that it does not want any further involvement in Yemen’s civil war and that it wants to halt arm sales to the Saudi kingdom.

President Trump has justified the continuance of these sales by arguing that they create jobs, but the new Raytheon deal is only creating jobs in Saudi Arabia. It’s unclear why the administration is so hellbent on defying Congress, but personal enrichment or bribery has to be considered a possible motive. The foreign service is strongly opposed to the sales at the senior level, and Kushner’s Middle East peace initiative is as dead as the dodo.

Congress can only stop the sales if they can override a presidential veto, which is unlikely. Plus, those sales will still be premised on a phony state of emergency with Iran. It’s easy to see why the inspector general needed to be removed from the picture, but Congress should try to get its hands on the preliminary report he circulated within the State Department in March before the COVID-19 outbreak curtailed his investigation.

Does America Have the Data It Needs to Fight Coronavirus?

As COVID-19 began to spread across the United States in early March, Alexis Madrigal realized something important was missing. The nation didn’t just lack enough ventilators, PPE, and other critical medical equipment to fight the virus. It lacked enough data.

Madrigal, an Atlantic staff writer covering the pandemic, wanted a comprehensive collection of statistics on the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from each state to analyze and make sense of the crisis. He quickly learned that there was no single entity taking on this task.

So, he decided to do something about it. Alongside fellow Atlantic reporter Robinson Meyer, data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher, and content strategist Erin Kissane, he created the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization that collects state-by-state data on coronavirus testing and outcomes, and then works with nonprofits and local and national newsrooms to help the public better understand the outbreak and what needs to be done to address it.

I recently caught up with Madrigal to find out more about the project and what he’s discovered about America’s handling of the crisis from his unique vantage point of being the country’s leading COVID-19 data aggregator.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s the genesis behind the COVID-19 tracking project? What led you to create it?

I had been tracking the work of a genomic epidemiologist named Trevor Bedford. He had been able to show that the virus had been spreading in the U.S. for quite some time. Why didn’t we know that? When my reporting partner and I, Rob Meyer, started to really think about this, it became clear that the problem was that the U.S. wasn’t testing enough.

We basically started creating a spreadsheet, pulling from states’ websites, emailing them, trying to gather how many people had been tested. When we published that story, which contains a comprehensive state-by-state accounting of how many people had been tested, it was fewer than 2000 people. Seconds after the story published, a friend of mine, Jeff Hammerbacher, emailed to say, “Hey, did use my spreadsheet for this?” It turned out that we’d basically been tracking the same data. So we decided to team up. The next day, the last co-founder came on, Erin Kissane. There was no place where you could go to see how many tests have been performed in the United States, even though everyone was saying how important it was.

Do you think the federal government should be offering this service, probably through the CDC? And do you feel like you had to do this work because the government wasn’t? 

We would have never done this work if the CDC had been doing it. The CDC has begun to put some information onto what they’re calling the “CDC COVID Tracker” website. The problem is that they’re not providing historical data. We need to be able to see the trends. Right now, the CDC is only providing current day snapshots. People need to know what happened before so they can predict what’s going to happen in the future. We just did a large analysis of the CDC data. Since that report came out, we’ve realized the CDC was including antibody tests in their totals, which is a huge problem. Mixing those results, as one expert told us, makes those numbers uninterpretable.

“If one outcome of this crisis is that people take into account that they’re going to need high quality data to reduce uncertainty and make better decisions, that will be a great service that we have provided.”

Honestly, it’s the kind of mistake you just cannot believe. It throws off some of the very key measures that people are using to try to decide when to allow increased social activity.

Government officials have spent so much time preparing for a pandemic. I haven’t seen a plan, though, that really thought about how data would flow. If one outcome of this crisis is that people take into account that they’re going to need high quality data to reduce uncertainty and make better decisions, that will be a great service that we have provided.

Ok, so what exactly does the Covid Tracking Project do? How has your work changed as the pandemic has progressed?

The COVID Tracking Project compiles and analyzes state level data. In practice, that means that we have dozens of volunteers who go to many different states’ websites and compile it into a spreadsheet. We have teams of people who double check that work. We have teams of people who do outreach to states, and others who try to get the quality of data reporting improved. We have a large wing that works to make this data accessible to people for different types of modeling.

At the end of the day, the COVID Tracking Project takes the state data and makes it accessible to a wide variety of people for different kinds of uses, everything from just about every major newsroom to modelers, inside and outside the government.

Is there an analysis component on your part, as well?

I think that people tend to think of data as a raw good, but in fact, it’s sort of a manufactured entity. That’s true at every level in data collection. If a state says “total tests,” does that mean that’s the number of people they’ve tested or the number of specimens they’ve tested? We are trying to help people contextualize the numbers. It’s not so much about telling people what to think about the numbers.

You have a “Data Quality Grade” listed for each state. How is that determined?

It’s really about the comprehensiveness of the state’s reporting. We have lowered states grades who were mixing antibody tests and viral tests because of what that does to their interpretability. Most of the time, it’s about what a state reports or not. We look across many different categories and see what states are reporting in these different places. And then we say, if this approach is the best way of reporting this metric for whatever reason, then maybe every state should report like that. Then reporting overall would be better.

Your website says that you’re helping local newsrooms. How are you doing that?

Local reporters are really good at flushing things out of the states. We’re good at providing the national context that allows them to understand if their state’s practices align with other states. Then, they can go to state officials and say, “Hey, what’s going on with it?”

It’s worked a lot that way too with different local publications around race and ethnicity data. We can say to them, look, 47 other states are already doing this. Then, of course, the more pressure the reporters put on the states to do better data reporting, the better our database gets. We’re able to provide almost a kind of data team for all these local newsrooms, because they couldn’t necessarily do that all on their own. They don’t have those resources.

How many volunteers do you have? What responsibilities do they cover?

Our Slack has more than 500 people in it. The active volunteer base right now is probably around 160. They have a lot of different roles. At times, we’ve covered 35 press conferences in a day, mostly to just shake free data out of those and to increase our awareness of what the states are saying. It’s a big, big project, We have scientists and epidemiologists and public health people working on the data. We also have data scientists and journalists. Every kind of person that you might imagine might be on a project like this is on the project.

What have you learned about how testing is dispersed across the country?

The rates in testing are determined by a few different factors. Places that had really big outbreaks tend to have large testing operations. States that either already had or rapidly developed a very close relationship with a particular laboratory tended to do quite well in the early testing rounds. It’s hard to say that there’s one overriding factor that leads a state to do a lot of testing per capita. It’s kind of all over the map.

“We have to understand that the data is not a raw good, it has to be manufactured and put together. That takes time and effort, it takes people, it takes money.”

Over the next few months, I think we’re going to see the American innovation machine really go to town on this problem. There are some communities where lots of people are unemployed, lots of people are undocumented, and that’s where we need the most support. Already, black people dying at much higher rates, Latinos are overly represented in the cases. I expect that that is only going to go up. While this virus can affect everybody’s body roughly in the same way, being wealthy is quite protective, because you don’t have to go to a job, you work from a computer, you can leave a city where there are lots of infections. There’s all kinds of reasons for that. But all you have to do is look at a ZIP code map of New York to see what’s going on.

Do you have any plans as of now to expand the project? How will you adapt as circumstances change over time?

We’re interested in county level data particularly for race and ethnicity purposes. And we’re pretty interested in what the possibilities are for ZIP code level data within Metros. We also want to incorporate socioeconomic data into the racial and ethnic data. The core thing is to continue putting out this dataset and continue advocating for the transparency that the country needs, and making sure that people are able to connect the individual pieces of data.

From what you’ve seen, what policy changes need to be made to address the data problems you’re dealing with?

At the end of the day, we need legislation that provides national standards for data reporting. And that system needs to be adequately funded. We need to protect all of our people in this country, because if we don’t, it’s going to be really difficult to control this disease.

People have to know what’s happening so they can make good decisions. And we have to understand that the data is not a raw good, it has to be manufactured and put together. That takes time and effort, it takes people, it takes money. This is crucial to support the state health departments and hospitals that are generating the data. We can’t just assume data will be there when we need it. That’s how we can make a big impact—by putting together the right data infrastructure at the state and national levels. If you want a winning nonpartisan issue around coronavirus, fixing our data collection infrastructure is it.