Five Best Monday Columns

A Middle East win-win and the science behind 'Contagion'

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Bob Woodward on Cheney's folly  The 9/11 decade and the lessons of Iraq have taught us that "it is essential to distinguish between hard facts and what is an assessment or judgment," writes Bob Woodward in The Washington Post. Vice President Dick Cheney's memoir demonstrates that he did not learn his lesson from the "slam-dunk evidence" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. At an NSC session, Cheney writes that he was the "sole voice" arguing that America should bomb a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria. Bush ignored his advice. "He notes with some relish that two months later the Israelis took unilateral action and destroyed the reactor," Woodward writes. "The clear implication is that Bush and the others had lost their nerve, that they lacked the necessary spine to act as he had recommended." Other accounts portray the intelligence about the reactor differently. Then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told Bush, Cheney, and others he had "low confidence" the reactor was part of a weapons program, presenting his evidence so as to discourage a military strike. "Cheney said he wanted the United States to commit an act of war to send a message, demonstrate seriousness and enhance credibility--a frightening prospect given the doubts," he writes. For its part, the CIA was so happy to have avoided a strike that it issued a memorial coin with a map of Syria and the phrase "no core/no war."

W. Ian Lipkin on our vulnerability to new pandemics  The true threat global disease outbreaks pose is often more "gripping" than any of the zombie movies Hollywood puts out. That's why, when director Steven Soderbergh decided to make the film Contagion, which "didn't distort reality but did convey the risks that we all face from emerging infectious diseases," epidemiologist W. Ian Lipkin signed on as a paid technical consultant to the film, he writes in The New York Times. Three quarters of new contagious diseases originate among animals before jumping to humans. Risk of their spread is increased with the rise of international travel, globalized food production, and the displacing of wildlife by deforestation and urbanization. Lipkin hopes the film, Contagion, which premiered this week, will awaken the world to our vulnerability to pandemics. Lipkin and his team designed a fictional disease for the film. "We used as our inspiration the Nipah virus, which in Malaysia in the late 1990s jumped from bats to pigs to humans, causing respiratory disease and encephalitis and resulting in more than 100 deaths before it was contained by quarantine," he writes. They determined how a new disease would spread, evolve, and be contained. In the film, it kills over 1 million people. There are ways we can prepare better by, for example, increasing investment in public health, Lipkin says. "We must invest in sensitive, inexpensive diagnostic tests and better ways of manufacturing and distributing drugs and vaccines. Although new technology now allows us to design many vaccines in days, manufacturing strategies for influenza vaccines have not changed in decades," he says. "Second, more and better coordination is needed among many local, federal and international agencies." A film like Contagion, makes heroes out of the scientists and professionals who fight disease, and he hopes the film will inspire more youth to choose those careers and support their efforts.

Stanley Kurtz on the Ponzi scheme metaphor  Rick Perry is by no means the first to draw an analogy between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme. "Not only have a raft of conservatives called Social Security a Ponzi scheme over the years, quite a few very respectable liberals have done so as well," writes Stanley Kurtz in National Review. "It is clearly wrong either to treat the Ponzi-scheme analogy as unprecedented or to rule it altogether out of legitimate public debate." Economist Paul Samuelson wrote a 1967 Newsweek column arguing that succeeding generations of America would make Social Security a kind of sustainable Ponzi scheme. His defense of the program became influential and widely cited. In 1978, Samuelson recognized that a post-Baby Boom decline in the birth rate made his demographic assumptions wrong. Increasingly the "Ponzi scheme" analogy got taken up by opponents, not supporters, of Social Security. "Rick Perry's remarks are uncharacteristically bold for a politician, most especially a candidate in the midst of a presidential race," Kurtz writes. "Yet Perry’s Ponzi-scheme claim is in no way unprecedented." He wonders why the liberal media now makes taboo what it once itself discussed.

L. Gordon Crovitz on Arrington, new media, and investment  Technology increases the amount of information online, but it also means that "Readers have to work harder to decide which of their many sources can be trusted." TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington focused media attention on this problem when he "set up a $20 million venture fund to invest in startups, which are among the main topics covered by the site," writes L. Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal. AOL exempted TechCrunch from normal rules about reporters investing in companies they cover because it said sites like TechCrunch "have different standards." After a firestorm, AOL changed its mind about allowing Arrington to continue writing. Arrington's philosophy is radically different from traditional media, including The Journal's. "Foster Winans, who wrote the Journal's 'Heard on the Street' column in the early 1980s, was convicted of violating securities laws by trading in the companies he was writing about before the columns were published." Winans argued that he should be able to do just as much as his employer could legally do. A court rejected the appeal and noted that while The Journal did have that right, a newspaper was unlikely to make a quick buck while sacrificing its reputation for unbiased news. Arrington, on other hand, has acknowledge his conflicts of interest in the past and once "pledged to disclose his investments and wrote: 'You, as readers, can choose to accept those rules and read, or not and leave.'" "Some of the smartest venture capitalists have concluded that they could get inside access to the best startups by becoming investors alongside Mr. Arrington," he writes, noting that "information drives markets" and in the tech age, investors and readers need to be even more aware of the kind of bias their information has. "Readers can decide if there is even enough room for a brand with a reputation for being so close to trades that it's hard to tell where news ends and investing begins."

Prince Turki al-Faisal on Palestinian Statehood, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.  "The United States must support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this month or risk losing the little credibility it has in the Arab world," writes Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States in The New York Times. To do otherwise would be to strengthen Iran, weaken Israeli security, and endanger the "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia. The relationship "would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people." The Palestinians, he says, deserve "official recognition, endorsement by international organizations, the ability to deal with Israel on more equal footing and the opportunity to live in peace and security." Israel should see this solution as one that will ensure future peace and stability. Al-Faisal says the negotiations should begin with 1967 borders and a two-state solution. "The only losers in this scenario would be Syria and Iran, pariah states that have worked tirelessly--through their support of Hamas and Hezbollah--to undermine the peace process," he says. Given the imminent collapse of Assad's regime, we have a unique opportunity to isolate Iran. "But this opportunity will be squandered if the Obama administration's actions at the United Nations force a deepening split between" Saudi Arabia and the U.S. "American support for Palestinian statehood is therefore crucial, and a veto will have profound negative consequences. In addition to causing substantial damage to American-Saudi relations and provoking uproar among Muslims worldwide, the United States would further undermine its relations with the Muslim world, empower Iran and threaten regional stability."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.