Weekly Review — September 22, 2017, 3:05 pm

Weekly Review

Fatal misunderstandings

U.S. president Donald Trump, who has called the United Nations one of the world’s “most valuable institutions,” arrived at U.N. headquarters in New York to deliver his first speech to the General Assembly, then praised the international body for having increased the value of his nearby Trump World Tower, a 72-story residential building whose construction the United Nations had opposed. The U.N. secretary-general told Trump that “fiery talk” could lead to “fatal misunderstandings”; Trump said that Venezuela is “collapsing,” that Iran is a “murderous regime,” and that North Korea is on a “suicide mission” that might require him to “totally destroy” the country of 25 million people; and North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, went apple picking. Trump warned that parts of the world are “going to hell,” then nominated for federal judgeship a man who once said transgender children are part of “Satan’s plan.” Four Republican senators introduced their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act with a bill that would take away insurance from 32 million people and raise the cost of annual health care for the average senior citizen by $16,000; a senator from Kansas, which would lose an estimated 16 percent of its health care funding by 2036, said voting for the repeal was necessary so Republicans could “maintain control” of Congress; a senator from Iowa, which would lose an estimated 27 percent of funding by 2036, said he could think of “ten reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered” but would vote for it anyway; Vice President Mike Pence, who once exacerbated an H.I.V. epidemic in Indiana when as governor he forced the state’s Planned Parenthood facilities to close, defended the bill by saying that the “government that governs least governs best,” a quote he attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who never said it; Trump said he would sign the health care bill, which would allow states to waive protections for people with preexisting conditions, because it included “coverage of preexisting conditions”; and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced plans to build a fence on the George Washington Bridge to stop people from killing themselves. Trump praised African leaders for the “increasingly self-sufficient” health system of the nonexistent country of Nambia and told the group that “so many friends” of his were “trying to get rich” on their continent; a senior Trump Administration official said the White House was working to give more “leeway” to U.S. arms dealers selling assault rifles to buyers in other countries; and the secretary of the interior installed the video game Big Game Hunter Pro in the employee cafeteria. U.S. first lady Melania Trump called for an end to cyberbullying, Trump retweeted a video edited by a white supremacist that appeared to depict Trump hitting and knocking down his former Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, with a golf ball, the G.O.P. majority whip in the South Dakota House of Representatives shared an illustration of a car running over protesters with the words “All Lives Splatter,” and the Twitter account of a Florida state representative who once declared pornography a “public health crisis” liked a porn video, days after a porn video was liked by the Twitter account of a senator from Texas who once called Trump a “rat” with whom he had “no desire” to have sex. “Outstanding,” said former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, whom Trump reportedly passed over for secretary of state because he didn’t like Bolton’s bushy white mustache.

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What China Threat?·

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Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

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Without a Trace·

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In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

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When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
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America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
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In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

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