(Meriden) Record-Journal (Conn.), Feb. 9:

Just a few short days ago, talk of the Zika virus, which is linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains and heads, primarily in Brazil and throughout Latin America, seemed like a distant problem.

But that’s no longer the case.

More than 30 cases of the Zika virus have now been reported in the continental U.S.

According to the World Health Organization, the time from exposure to Zika, to showing symptoms of the virus, is likely to be a few days. And the symptoms, which last from two to seven days, include fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise and headache.

With 12 cases of the mosquitoborne illness detected in Florida recently, Gov. Rick Scott declared a health emergency in five counties in his state. Aside from one case, in Texas, Americans who contracted the virus did so while traveling to affected countries.

However, a patient in Dallas was determined to have contracted the Zika virus here in the U.S., through sexual contact with a person who had recently returned from Venezuela.

Making matters worse, Brazilian officials are being accused of hoarding disease data and biological material in regard to Zika.

An Associated Press report revealed that international health officials were frustrated at Brazil’s refusal to share enough viral samples and other information to answer the most worrying question about the outbreak: Whether the disease is truly causing a spike in babies born with abnormally small heads.

The AP reports, “After the story’s publication, the World Health Organization sent out a flurry of messages acknowledging that existing data-sharing mechanisms were deficient.” Feeling the heat, presumably, Brazilian officials now say they’re sending a set of samples related to the Zika outbreak to the U.S.

Zika’s march is unsettling to see, of course, particularly for pregnant women or those hoping to become pregnant. And women in those situations are being urged not to travel to Caribbean and Latin American countries. Meanwhile, mosquito repellents are flying off the shelves as people attempt to keep the pests at bay.

Unfortunately, it appears there’s not much else we can do.

Rutland Herald (Vt.), Feb. 13:

Secretary of State John Kerry has secured a deal to bring humanitarian aid to civilians in Syria and to begin a cease-fire in a week’s time. But it’s all contingent upon acquiescence by Russia, and there is no indication that Russia wants to do anything in Syria but manipulate events to its own advantage.

Russia is now in the driver’s seat in Syria, mainly because it is free of the scruples that have inhibited action by the Obama administration. Russian air strikes have helped turn the Syrian civil war in favor of the government of Bashar al-Assad, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee the city of Aleppo, which now faces the threat of a prolonged siege.

Russian actions follow the pattern of Ukraine. Official public statements are mainly lies designed to cover up the reality that Russia plans to pursue its own ruthless ends no matter what anyone says. In the case of Syria, its aim is to prop up its client, Assad. Russia justifies its air strikes, saying it is attacking terrorists. In fact, it is attacking some of the very rebels that the United States is supporting in the fight against Assad, while largely ignoring ISIS, the actual terrorist threat.

There are many good reasons why President Barack Obama has not acted in Syria to fill the power vacuum created by the civil war. But that failure to act has had large geopolitical consequences that may not have figured into his calculations. Columnist Roger Cohen of The New York Times has said that chaos in Syria serves the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin because it has forced millions of refugees to flee into Turkey, Greece and other NATO nations.

The refugees serve Putin’s purposes because they sow dissension in Europe, empowering the kind of nationalistic, far-right movements that are anti-immigrant and pro-Putin in their tendencies. Disunity in Europe weakens the European response to Russian aggression in places such as Ukraine.

Obama’s policy in Syria is his gravest foreign policy failure. It has not been a foolhardy action, like President George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Rather, it has been a step-by-step failure to see a way through. Many of us who have supported his policies are guilty of the same failure to see.

First, Obama stated early in the insurrection that Assad would have to go. In the early days of the Arab Spring, it seemed he might go fairly easily. But he didn’t, and once he showed he was going to fight, Obama had no easy way of making him go.

As the war deepened, Obama was reluctant to flood Syria with arms, knowing that many of the factions fighting Assad were anti- American Islamic terrorists, some of them linked to al-Qaida. Still, he continued to threaten, saying that if Assad used chemical weapons he would be crossing a red line and there would be repercussions.

When Assad crossed that red line, Obama did not act. Instead, Russia entered the scene and persuaded Assad to give up his weapons. The United States was losing its power to shape events inside Syria.

Obama did not want another war in Syria, and everyone knew it. Attacking Syria in response to the chemical weapons would have forced Assad and others to consider that maybe the United States would fight after all. Obama probably didn’t want to let Assad call his bluff, if it was a bluff, or to force the United States into a war it didn’t want. His failing was that he was not as ruthless as Putin is. In the absence of a U.S. war against Assad, Russia has entered into the war on Assad’s side.

Many Americans do not have the stomach for the kind of geopolitical gamesmanship that former secretary of state Henry Kissinger might have practiced in Syria. Kissinger had no problem with ruthlessness. It’s impossible to know if a more aggressive policy would have had consequences less horrible than the present outcome. The best we can say is that the failure of Obama’s policy may be plain to see, but the road to success never seemed evident. Becoming Putin was not an option that the American people would have or should have welcomed.