Anyone who has tried to follow the tangled affairs of Europe in ages past, or merely watched “The Borgias,” knows how quickly alliances can be made and broken to meet the shifting needs and politics of rulers and peoples.
Witness the complexity of Washington’s efforts to form a coalition against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or even to agree on who the real enemy is. Or look at how various countries in Europe, in happier days firmly linked with Germany in the European project, have ganged up on Berlin and its obsession with austerity. And in the struggle against Ebola, it is remarkable how a few cases in the United States and Europe abruptly brought home the danger of a scourge that had been ravaging western Africa for over six months.
Ebola is the most urgent of these examples, because the number of victims is rising exponentially in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and the more infected people there, the greater the risk of the virus’s vaulting to neighboring countries and elsewhere in the world.
The reaction in the United States to the death of a man from Liberia and the infection of two nurses who treated him has been at times indecent, with a flood of recriminations, political showboating and panicked overreactions, like the closing of schools where students, parents or staff members had been on a flight with an infected nurse, or demands from members of Congress to ban commercial flights to the United States from Ebola-stricken lands.
Health officials say trying to seal the borders to travelers from West Africa could create panic there, complicating efforts to combat the epidemic, and would create a false sense of security since borders in the region are leaky and people would bribe their way out.
It is, of course, natural — and in keeping with the Tip O’Neill rule that all politics is local — that people will react more strongly to danger when it draws near, and will take whatever measures they can to protect themselves. But medical authorities are convinced that despite some unfortunate glitches when the disease made its first landfall outside Africa, the United States and other advanced countries have ample resources in public health facilities, information and money to quickly trace where the infection may have spread, and to take measures to halt its advance.
It is in Africa where Ebola is effectively out of control, and it is there that the world needs to join forces to halt it. The World Health Organization said this past week that transmission was “rampant” in Sierra Leone, where the disease had spread to every part of the country. The W.H.O. said that the virus was killing 70 percent of the people it attacked, and that the rate of infection could rise from 1,000 a week to as many as 10,000 a week by early December.
The W.H.O.’s goal is what it calls “70-70-60” — safe burials for 70 percent of victims, and 70 percent of suspected cases isolated, within 60 days of the date it set this goal. The strategy is handicapped by the fact that health workers in stricken countries have been succumbing to Ebola at a high rate, further undermining the defenses in already dismally poor and badly governed countries.
Perversely, the arrival of Ebola in the United States and Europe may be the jolt rich countries need to wake up to the clear and present danger of the epidemic, and to join forces in sending the equipment, money and trained medical staff to Africa to fight this war the way it must be fought.
The European leaders who gathered in Milan on Thursday were as collegial in public as a gathering of cardinals under the Borgia pope, and as unhappy and conspiratorial in private.
Stock markets were tumbling, borrowing costs were increasing, populists were rising up and the International Monetary Fund on Oct. 7 had once again scaled back its forecast for growth in the eurozone, from 1.1 percent down to just 0.8 percent, with a warning that the region might slide back into recession.
France, Italy and the European Central Bank have taken the lead in a rebellion against Angela Merkel, the unyielding enforcer of austerity.
Germany is the dominant economic force in Europe, but its economy is also losing momentum. German exports and factory orders are down. That has added to the pressure on the German government to do the unthinkable — to take action to spur economic growth. “We need to show that Europe is capable of investing in growth, and not only in rigor and austerity,” said Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, who has joined with France’s new prime minister, Manuel Valls, in challenging the Germans by seeking to breach eurozone limits on national spending to stimulate their economies. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, has sided with the rebels, leaning on Germany to go easier on budgetary discipline and to spend more on public works.
The conflict, which has been building over several weeks, has spooked markets, and was seen as one of the factors in a stock market rout that began Wednesday. With Germany itself beginning to feel the pinch, Ms. Merkel may soon have to start looking for wiggle room.
Sorting Out the Enemies
The band calling itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has done everything possible to make itself everybody’s enemy, decapitating hostages, murdering prisoners, enslaving women and children and conquering large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq. One of the few forces that has managed to resist it are the Kurds, and a battle for Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish city near the Turkish border, is a critical one.
On Monday, Turkey plunged into that battle — against the Kurds. Turkish warplanes attacked positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the P.K.K., in southeastern Turkey. The P.K.K. is linked to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Kobani, and the United States had been urging Turkey to come to the assistance of Syrian Kurds.
Turkey fought a nasty war for years against the P.K.K. and its dreams of Kurdish autonomy, and as far as the Turks are concerned, the more the Islamic State and the Kurds fight, the better. As Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, recently said, “Hey, world, when a terrorist organization like ISIS emerges, you all speak out, but why don’t you speak out against the P.K.K. as a terrorist organization?”
Mr. Erdogan also wants the United States and its allies to fight not only the Islamic State, but the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria as well, and has demanded that the allies create a no-fly buffer zone in Syria along Turkey’s border with that country.
The Turkish position is only one piece of the tangle of alliances and conflicting goals among the enemies of the Islamic State. They include, for example, Iranian-backed Shiite militias that once fought the United States, and Iran itself, which opposes the Islamic State but supports Mr. Assad.
In that maze, it may not be entirely strange that while Turkey, America’s ally in NATO, was bombing the P.K.K., the United States was supporting the P.K.K.’s allies in Kobani by bombing Islamic State positions. That’s far beyond what Tip O’Neill had in mind, but the Borgias would understand.
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