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The possibility that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan research laboratory is not something from the fever dreams of conspiracy theory: No less a fixture of the establishment than Anthony Fauci himself says he is “not convinced” the virus emerged naturally from contact with animals. President Joe Biden has ordered an investigation, of sorts, into the question.
The evidence is far from conclusive. And that is the problem — it’s going to stay inconclusive without a real investigation, something that neither the bosses in Beijing nor the bureaucrats of the World Health Organization can promise with any credibility.
The 90-day review Biden has requested from the US intelligence community is not the kind of investigation that’s needed. Without access to the relevant data in China, this “investigation” will amount to a review of the intelligence that already is available. The problem is not that US authorities have not been looking into what happened in Wuhan — we can safely assume that project got ample encouragement from former President Donald Trump, who loved to speak of the “China virus.” The problem is that Beijing is obstructing international efforts to study the origin of COVID-19 and must be persuaded to cooperate.
The Biden administration likes to talk about diplomacy and multilateralism, and now would be an excellent time for some of that. But there’s very little to be had.
Instead, the best the administration has been able to muster is having Xavier Becerra — the left-wing lawyer who, for some reason, serves as Biden’s secretary of health and human services — lecture the WHO about the need to be “transparent” in this matter.
With apologies to such titans as Michael O. Leavitt and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretaries of health and human services are not world-shaking figures. This is a job for heads of government — lots of them.
Consider a counterexample.
When Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the administration of former President George H. W. Bush put on a master class in high-speed diplomacy. The United Nations and the Arab League were brought on board. Saudi Arabia pledged billions to support the effort to free Kuwait. Arab leaders ranging from Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to Syria’s Hafez al-Assad supported the effort. Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Brian Mulroney backed the effort, and François Mitterrand dispatched 18,000 troops, including the French Foreign Legion and other support.
In a particularly deft bit of diplomacy, the Israelis were persuaded to sideline themselves even as threats — and then missiles — rained on them. The world rallied under US leadership.
George H. W. Bush was underappreciated in his time and is missed in ours. And his kind of diplomacy should be the template for our unfinished business in Wuhan — not a military invasion, but a shoulder-to-shoulder, worldwide effort that leaves Beijing isolated, under inescapable pressure with nowhere to turn.
We don’t need the guy who has Donna Shalala’s old job on that particular case — we need Boris Johnson, Yoshihide Suga, Angela Merkel, Ursula von der Leyen, Emmanuel Macron, Scott Morrison, Narendra Modi, Muhammad Buhari, etc.
This will have to happen, if it happens, under US leadership — because that is the only such leadership that is, as a practical matter, available.
If Iraq had been allowed to swallow Kuwait 30 years ago, it would have been a footnote in world history. The COVID-19 epidemic, in contrast, has been a genuinely world-changing event. Understanding how it came to happen is an absolute necessity — and preventing something like it from happening again is, properly understood, the most important task on the desk of government leaders worldwide.
If this was a laboratory accident, then it is a laboratory accident that can happen again.
It is not as though Beijing is entitled to the benefit of the doubt here. The dishonesty of Chinese leaders in this matter is well-established, as is their incompetence and negligence in related matters: from the coverups of the Bohai Bay oil spill and the Songhua River benzene dump to the Long March 5B rocket falling out of the sky.
Americans sometimes think of Xi Jinping & Co. as evil geniuses, but their measures are often crude and inept. A police state is a useful instrument for keeping members of religious minorities in concentration camps, but it is not a very useful instrument for keeping viruses in safe storage.
The big diplomatic item on President Biden’s agenda right now is planning a lunch date with Vladimir Putin in Geneva next month. Russia surely needs attention, but the big show is China. President Biden can make time to lecture the Germans about gas pipelines or to have Secretary Whatshisname mouth a few platitudes about transparency, but he should be building a multinational coalition to get answers about Wuhan — and to reduce the likelihood of another worldwide pandemic that will kill millions or billions.
“America’s back,” Biden said. Time to deliver.
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