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World roundup: December 20 2022
Stories from China, Fiji, Nigeria, and elsewhere
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Happy Hanukkah to those who are celebrating!
PROGRAMMING NOTE: It’s about time for FX’s holiday break, which as I said last year always becomes apparent when I feel myself losing the power to comprehend the written word. Barring any unforeseen developments, Thursday’s roundup will be our last of 2022 and I’ll be returning to regular programming on January 8. I don’t anticipate doing a “year in review” type of thing this year but I will have a few things to send out here and there and I’m hoping optimistically that we’ll have another new contributor ready to start contributing just after the new year. As always, thanks for reading!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 19, 1946: The Battle of Hanoi marks the start of the 1946-1954 First Indochina War. The battle began when Việt Minh forces bombed Hanoi’s power plant and under cover of darkness began attacking French forces in the city. The Việt Minh eventually had to withdraw in the face of superior French numbers in February 1947, though of course they would eventually win the war. The outcome was a partition of Vietnam into northern and southern states—which ended when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War—and the ouster of French forces from the region.
December 19, 1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang sign the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Beijing. The declaration set July 1, 1997, as the date upon which the British government would turn control of Hong Kong, including Kowloon and the New Territories, over to the Chinese government.
December 20 (or thereabouts), 1192: Duke Leopold I of Austria imprisons King Richard I of England as the latter is returning home from the Third Crusade. Leopold had several grievances with Richard. Richard had personally treated him badly during the Crusade, for example. But his chief complaint was that Richard had (allegedly…OK, probably) arranged the assassination of the proclaimed King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, who was Leopold’s cousin. Pope Celestine III excommunicated Leopold for his transgression, while Leopold turned Richard over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who had his own grievances with England (Celestine also excommunicated Henry). Henry, who needed money more than he needed to punish Richard, ransomed him back to England for the tidy sum of 150,000 marks.
December 20, 1989: In “Operation Just Cause,” the US military invades Panama with the goal of removing dictator Manuel Noriega from power. Publicly Noriega, an erstwhile US ally, had run afoul of the Reagan and then Bush administrations by playing both sides of the drug trade—something he’d started doing alongside the US as part of the Iran-Contra operation. Theories abound as to the real justification for the invasion, from the Pentagon’s desire to test out new military hardware, Noriega’s involvement with and therefore knowledge of Iran-Contra, George Bush’s political need to look tough, and Noriega’s diplomatic outreach to countries like Castro-led Cuba and Sandinista-run Nicaragua. According to the US military its invasion killed just over 200 civilians, but more credible assessments put that figure somewhere between 500 and 3000.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Syrian army is claiming that two of its soldiers were wounded in an overnight Israeli missile strike near Damascus. It’s also acknowledging unspecified material damage resulting from the attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, says that three non-Syrian militia fighters, either members of Hezbollah or of a group affiliated with Hezbollah, were killed in the attack. Note that these claims are not mutually exclusive.
An organization called the Syrian Network for Human Rights claims that it has obtained death certificates for 547 people who have been arrested or disappeared by the Syrian government since the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising. There’s no confirmation that these are legitimate documents, but this story certainly doesn’t contradict claims that thousands or tens of thousands of people have been detained by Syrian authorities since 2011 and that a large number of them have died in custody.
The Jordanian government on Tuesday hosted a French-organized conference, “Baghdad II,” bringing together regional and international actors to try to get a handle on the Middle East’s—and in particular Iraq’s—challenges. Without checking I’m going to just assume they figured everything out and the problems are all fixed. Congratulations everybody!
World Politics Review’s Emil Avdaliani examines the modern iteration of a very old contest for regional influence:
Iran and Turkey share a history of deep rivalry spanning back centuries to the medieval age, when they fought a series of expansionist wars in the Middle East. Nowadays their competition is more subtle, but nevertheless covers increasingly more terrain. One such area of discord between the two is the South Caucasus.
If Iran’s moves over the past couple months are any indication, Turkey’s growing influence in the region, especially its alliance with Azerbaijan, has heightened Tehran’s sense of unease. Ankara has substantially increased its position in the South Caucasus following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkish-made drones spearheaded Azerbaijan’s battlefield successes, while Turkish military intelligence proved to be similarly decisive. Ankara also trained Azerbaijani soldiers; installed a semi-official presence in the Russian-led peacekeeping mission monitoring the cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh; and signed an official treaty of alliance with Baku known as the “Shusha Declaration.”
Greater influence in Azerbaijan provides a gateway for Ankara to extend its reach beyond the Caucasus, toward the Caspian Sea and further into Central Asia, especially Turkmenistan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, signing new economic cooperation treaties to strengthen ties. Iran now sees the prospect of an arc of Turkey-aligned states emerging as a powerful Turkic alliance along its northern borders.
The Afghan government has banned women from universities, a continuation of its systematic excision of women from virtually all public spaces. Since retaking power last year, the Afghan Taliban had already barred girls from attending middle and high school, so this latest step was probably just a matter of time. It means that women who are already in university or were hoping to attend are now out of luck unless they can manage to go abroad. This new step will further reduce the Taliban’s already low chances of winning widespread international recognition in the near term.
Afghan officials did release two US nationals who’d been in Afghan custody on Tuesday, perhaps hoping to score some international credibility despite the university move. The US State Department has not identified either American and insists that there was no corresponding prisoner release on the US side, nor was any ransom paid. There apparently are still US nationals in Afghan custody, though I haven’t seen any information as to their identities.
Pakistani security forces ended the hostage situation at a counter-terrorism center in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday with a commando raid that apparently freed all of the hostages (UPDATE: one hostage was apparently killed). Two Pakistani commandos were killed in the raid along with an unspecified number of the Pakistani Taliban fighters who seized the facility late Sunday evening. It’s unclear if any of the hostage takers survived.
There have been disconcerting reports from inside China of authorities scrambling to add additional hospital beds and otherwise respond to and/or prepare for a substantial wave of new COVID cases, following the decision by the Chinese government earlier this month to phase out its “Zero-COVID” approach. Chinese authorities have reported seven COVID-related deaths so far this week, the first of those that Beijing has acknowledged in weeks, and while I’ve been reluctant to link to any of the several “COVID SURGES THROUGH CHINA” pieces that have appeared in Western outlets in recent days it stands to reason that shifting from maximum lockdown mode to “let’s try to live with it” mode is going to trigger a major increase in COVID’s spread.
You might think that this turn of events would be seized upon by the United States as proof of Beijing’s failure to manage the pandemic, but because China remains such an integral part of the global economy the reaction in the West seems largely to be trepidation, especially as the World Bank issues gloomier forecasts for China’s growth rate. On top of the economic issues, there are public health concerns—a major new wave (or multiple waves) of COVID in China creates a lot of potential for the virus to mutate into new and ever more exciting variants. There appears to be some appetite to offer assistance to China, but no indication as to whether the Chinese government would be interested in accepting it.
Fiji’s next government will feature a new prime minister, as a three party coalition led by Sitiveni Rabuka’s People’s Alliance party will take power in the next session of parliament. Rabuka was able on Tuesday to close a deal with the Social Democratic Liberal Party, adding its three seats to the 26 seats the People’s Alliance/National Federation Party coalition already controlled and giving him a slim majority in the 55 seat legislature. Incumbent Frank Bainimarama will find himself out of power for the first time since he led a successful coup against the civilian government back in 2006. It is unclear what Rabuka offered the Social Democrats for their support but the makeup of his forthcoming cabinet may offer some hints.
Burkina Faso’s ruling junta rejected on Tuesday the allegation that it has turned over a gold mine to Russia’s Wagner Group private military company in return for counter-terrorism assistance. As you may recall, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo made that allegation last week during the US-Africa summit in Washington. Akufo-Addo said something about Wagner being giving control of a mine in southern Burkina Faso, but according to the junta no mine in that part of the country has been conceded to any Russian interest.
The junta did recently give a Russian company operational control over a mine in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord region, but the firm in question has been active in Burkina Faso’s mining industry for years and there’s no obvious link between it and Wagner apart from both being Russian. Notably, though, the junta has yet to address the other part of Akufo-Addo’s allegation, that it’s contracted with Wagner for counter-terrorism assistance.
Speaking of the Ghanaian government, it called a halt to all debt service payments on Tuesday in what it called an “interim emergency measure” because that sounds better than “default.” Ghana and the International Monetary Fund reached preliminary agreement on a $3 billion bailout loan last week, and part of that bailout program will involve restructuring the terms of Ghana’s debt. So this is a sort of abrupt first step in that direction.
The Pentagon has apparently missed its deadline to respond to a congressional inquiry regarding its role in a deadly 2017 airstrike in Nigeria:
The Pentagon has exceeded a three-month time limit set by lawmakers to hand over an investigation into its role in the killing of more than 160 civilians in Nigeria in 2017.
In September, the Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus called on Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to disclose details of the U.S. role in the January 17, 2017, airstrike on a displaced persons camp in Rann, Nigeria. While the Nigerian air force expressed regret for carrying out the attack, which also seriously wounded more than 120 people, it was referred to as an instance of “U.S.-Nigerian operations” in a formerly secret U.S. military document first revealed by The Intercept in July.
Just days after the attack, U.S. Africa Command secretly commissioned Brig. Gen. Frank J. Stokes to undertake an “investigation to determine the facts and circumstances” of the airstrike while avoiding questions of wrongdoing or recommendations for disciplinary action, according to the document, which The Intercept obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Stokes’s findings were never made public.
The Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus — Reps. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif.; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Andy Kim, D-N.J.; and Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. — asked Austin to turn over the nearly six-year-old investigation and answer a series of questions concerning the attack and U.S.-Nigerian military operations within 90 days; that deadline expired almost two weeks ago.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least nine people were killed, eight of them children, in an attack on a village in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province on Monday. Three people were wounded and two are still missing. Local officials are suggesting the attackers were members of the Zaire militia, an ethnic Hema militant group that sometimes carries out attacks against members of the rival Lendu community.
Elsewhere, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to extend the UN’s peacekeeping operation in the DRC for at least another year. Congolese officials have talked about winding down the unpopular UN presence in that country in 2024 so it’s possible this will be the last time this operation is renewed, at least at its current size. The Council also partially lifted its embargo on arms going to the DRC, permitting member states to sell weapons and otherwise provide military support to the Congolese government without seeking UN permission. The provision of such support to non-governmental militant groups is still banned. The Congolese government has been calling for such an adjustment for some time now.
European Union member states agreed on Monday to adopt a cap on natural gas prices, which will go into effect if the European benchmark gas price rises above €180 per megawatt hour for three days and is €35/MWh or more over a similar benchmark for liquefied natural gas. At that point the price will be capped to stay within that €35/MWh range compared with the LNG benchmark. The cap, which had been opposed by the German government in particular, will take effect in February and last for one year, during which European governments will be looking to restock their natural gas supplies ahead of the 2023-2024 winter. Already this plan has drawn criticism from one of Europe’s largest gas suppliers, Algeria, whose importance to European energy markets has significantly increased due to the war in Ukraine and its impact on Russian gas exports.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spent Tuesday in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that’s been the focus of offensive Russian military activity for several weeks now but nevertheless remains under Ukrainian control. This can be interpreted as thumbing his nose at the Russians. So can Zelensky’s apparent plan for Wednesday, which is to fly to the United States to meet in person with US President Joe Biden and potentially attend a special session of Congress. Zelensky hasn’t left Ukraine since the Russian invasion began so if this does actually come off it would send a message about his comfort level in terms of where the war currently stands. I say “if” because security concerns could quash this trip at any time.
To welcome Zelensky, the Biden administration rolled out a new $1.8 billion military aid package on Tuesday that will include a Patriot air defense missile battery. That unit will be sent first to Germany, where US personnel will train the Ukrainians in how to operate it.
As you might have expected, the Swedish Supreme Court’s decision to block the extradition of journalist Bülent Keneş to Turkey has not been well received by the Turkish government. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu characterized the ruling as “a very unfavorable development” on Tuesday, which I’m guessing is not something the Swedish government wants to hear from the country that will determine whether or not Sweden is allowed to join NATO. Extradition is usually a political rather than legal question, though the Swedish Foreign Ministry has suggested that it is bound to adhere to the court’s ruling and it would be a serious rule of law issue were the government to ignore the court.
The Peruvian Congress reconsidered the idea of moving up the country’s April 2026 general election on Tuesday, giving preliminary approval to a plan to hold that election in April 2024 instead. The measure has to be passed again by another two-thirds majority next year to take effect. Leftist parties had quashed an early election initiative last week in an effort to force a constitutional assembly, but were apparently convinced over the weekend that they’d never get their wish.
Also on Tuesday, the Peruvian government expelled the Mexican ambassador in Lima over comments from the Mexican government deemed to constitute interference in Peruvian domestic affairs. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been highly critical of the ouster of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo earlier this month, and his administration declared on Tuesday that it would offer asylum to members of Castillo’s family who are currently holed up in the Mexican embassy in Lima. AMLO has offered asylum to Castillo himself, but it seems unlikely that Peruvian authorities would agree to release him.
Finally, if you missed it yesterday please check out Michael Brenes’s first Foreign Exchanges column, in which he assesses the future of US foreign policy restraint in a post-Ukraine war world:
As one would imagine, Packer’s essay caused a stir, if not a visceral loathing, among restrainers. But as historian Samuel Moyn tweeted, Packer’s essay—while gilding liberal internationalism for a rehabilitation of American primacy—reflected the reality that the old order cannot return after the War on Terror, “that a militarism-first option of liberal warmongers can’t simply be revived.”
Moreover, military options that characterized the War on Terror are currently off the table: pre-emptive invasion—and occupation—of sovereign nations, nation-building in the Middle East, unipolar dominance by the United States. Due in part to the work of journalists like Azmat Khan, drone strikes have decreased dramatically during the presidency of Joe Biden. Elements of restraint are also evident in the Biden administration’s policy toward Ukraine. Ostensibly motivated by fear of nuclear escalation, Biden has rejected “New Cold War” hawks’ calls for a no-fly zone, sending certain high-tech weapons to Ukraine, and the prospect of a direct US intervention in Ukraine. In dealing with great or failed states, Biden is operating in the shadow of the US inability to remake the world, even as many national security figures wish this wasn’t so.
Alone or in their aggregate, these new realities do not comprise a foreign policy of restraint. Restraint must be instrumentalized for a new US foreign policy—it is not the end in and of itself. As the war in Ukraine continues with no foreseeable end in sight, it provides restrainers with the means to envision and implement a postwar vision for the world. Restrainers must be critical of efforts to expand US power in the short term (for instance, a blank check to the Pentagon to fight the war), but must look to build an affirmative vision that relies upon international collaboration to reprioritize national security threats (around issues such as climate change, migration and refugee policy, poverty, and global health), deter imperial adventures by great powers, and demilitarize the landscape of foreign policy options once the war ends.
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