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World roundup: February 5-6 2022
Stories from Iraq, Russia, Brazil, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 4, 1789: George Washington is elected the first President of the United States. Washington’s election was “unanimous” in the sense that he received the support of at least half of the electors in each of the ten states that participated, for a total of 69 out of 138 votes cast. John Adams finished second with 34 votes and thereby became vice president. New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island didn’t participate—the latter two because they still hadn’t ratified the Constitution, and New York because its legislature failed to choose its slate of electors in time.
February 4, 1861: Representatives of seven US states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to drawn up a preliminary constitution for a new secessionist nation. Texas would soon join once the results of its February 1 referendum were tabulated. The “Montgomery Convention,” as the meeting is sometimes known, formed the basis of the future Confederate States of America.
February 5, 1810: A French army begins the two and a half year Siege of Cádiz, which had by this point in the Peninsular War become the capital of the rump government resisting Napoleon’s occupation of Spain. The defenders managed to hold out, even taking time to write a new Spanish Constitution (which was later discarded), until the Duke of Wellington led a British-Portuguese-Spanish army to victory at the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812. Suddenly facing the possibility that his besieging army could be cut off and surrounded, French general Jean-de-Dieu Soult lifted the siege and retreated. The Peninsular War continued until Wellington and the armies of the Sixth Coalition defeated and ousted Napoleon in 1814.
February 5, 1859: Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza of Moldavia is elected prince of Wallachia, uniting the two principalities in a personal union called, creatively, the “United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.” In 1862 they joined in a formal union called the “Romanian United Principalities,” and in 1866 that was shortened to simply “Romania.” The state then declared its independence from the Ottomans in 1877. Modern Romania gained additional territory after World War I, including Transylvania and parts of Banat, Bessarabia, and Bukovina.
February 6, 1840: British and Māori representatives sign the Treaty of Waitangi, officially making New Zealand a British colony. The Māori were looking for British protection from France and for recognition of their own property and individual rights. However, owing to differences between the English and Māori versions of the treaty it seems Māori leaders may not have fully understood just how much they were giving up in the process. The English version ascribes substantially greater power to the British crown than is apparent in the Māori version, and you can probably guess which version British authorities treated as authoritative. Under the terms of the treaty all Māori property and rights were supposed to be protected, though it only took British colonial authorities a couple of decades to thoroughly breach that part of the arrangement.
February 6, 1981: Uganda’s National Resistance Army rebels against the government of Milton Obote following a disputed election in December. This marked the start of the most important phase of the Ugandan civil war, or Ugandan Bush War, though the conflict had begun in October 1980 with an uprising in the West Nile region. The NRA captured Kampala in January 1986, overthrowing the military government that had ousted Obote in a coup the year before. The rebels then set up a new government under their leader, Yoweri Museveni, who has been president of Uganda ever since.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The United Nations Staff Union reports that 2021 saw 24 UN peacekeepers and one civilian worker “killed in deliberate attacks.” The vast majority of those peacekeeper deaths (19) occurred in Mali. The toll is up a bit from the 15 UN workers intentionally killed in 2020 but still lower than the 28 killed in 2019.
Syria’s many political opposition groups met in Qatar over the weekend to try, as former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab put it, to “assess our progress and correct the errors we have made along the difficult path to achieving a unified, free, democratic state.” Given that Bashar al-Assad has all but won the war and secured his control over Syria I’d say their progress has been “none” and that correcting their errors now is probably pointless. There, I could’ve saved everybody the plane fare. The Qatari government’s decision to host this conference highlights its reluctance to engage with Assad at a time when other Arab states (the UAE perhaps chief among them) are rebuilding ties with Damascus.
The UN’s Yemen aid coordinator, David Gressly, says he’s held “very positive discussions” with both the Yemeni government and rebel leaders about finally addressing the problem posed by the FSO Safer. For those who need a recap, the Safer is a floating oil storage and offloading ship that’s been stranded without a crew outside the port city of Hudaydah since the start of the Yemeni civil war. Its hull is rusting and fuel fumes pose a constant risk of fire, which on a ship with no power and therefore no fire suppression system would certainly trigger an explosion. That, in turn, would likely spill the million or so barrels of oil still stored aboard the Safer into the Red Sea along Yemen’s coast. Which would be an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.
The UN has been negotiating with the rebels and Yemeni officials for years about doing something to address this looming crisis but to no avail. Talks now appear to be focused on transferring the Safer’s oil cargo to another vessel. According to Gressly both the rebels and the government agree in principle with the UN’s plan, but they’ve been agreeing in principle about this problem for a long time now without anything actually being done about it.
The next stage in Iraq’s government formation process, parliament’s election of a president, may be on ice for the moment after Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc announced on Saturday that it would boycott a planned vote on Monday. The Sadrists, who are the largest bloc in parliament, are demanding that the two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, agree on a single presidential candidate. The PUK is backing incumbent Barham Salih for another term but the KDP has proposed its own Hoshyar Zebari instead. If the Sadrists sit out the vote that makes it unlikely that parliament will have its required quorum to hold the presidential vote.
A new complication emerged on Sunday, when Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court temporarily suspended Zebari’s candidacy over corruption allegations, responding to a petition from several MPs. Zebari was sacked from a previous gig as finance minister in 2016 over alleged corruption so these charges are not new. But the court’s ruling adds new uncertainty to this situation. The KDP could accept the suspension and move forward with a new candidate or even decide to drop its opposition to Salih, which would presumably satisfy the Sadrists’ demand for Kurdish unity. Or it could insist on waiting until the court issues its final ruling on Zebari’s eligibility, which could delay the presidential election for an indeterminate period of time.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince (and de facto UAE leader) Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Saturday while both were in Beijing attending the Olympics. That marks the first time those two men have spoken in person since the UAE joined Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt in imposing a regional boycott on Qatar in 2017. That dispute was laid to rest in early 2021, but the UAE has lagged behind Egypt and the Saudis in restoring diplomatic relations with Doha. Bahrain has been the most intransigent of the four and still hasn’t even restored its commercial relations with Qatar to the pre-boycott status quo, though I’m not sure rebuilding ties with Bahrain has been high on Qatari leaders’ to do list.
At least five Pakistani soldiers were killed on Sunday when militants reportedly fired on their outpost in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province from across the border in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban, which has continued operating with impunity from Afghanistan since the Afghan Taliban regained power back in August, claimed responsibility for the attack. Afghan officials are denying that the attack originated from their side of the border and in fairness the Pakistani claim that it did cannot be verified. Neither can a Pakistani claim that its forces returned fire and caused substantial casualties among the attackers.
In Baluchistan province, meanwhile, Pakistani authorities say they’ve completed an operation to deal with Baluch separatists who attacked two Pakistani security outposts on Wednesday. Nine Pakistani soldiers were killed in those attacks, which were claimed by the relatively new “Baluch Nationalist Army” group. The Pakistanis say they killed 20 Baluch militants in the ensuing operation.
According to Reuters, a new report by UN sanctions monitors finds that North Korea has been continuing to build its nuclear and ballistic missile programs over the past year in spite of international bans on both activities. The report finds that despite a lack of nuclear testing, Pyongyang has been taking other steps to improve its capacity to produce fissile material. Cyberattacks, primarily targeting cryptocurrency exchanges, have allegedly brought the North Koreans hundreds of millions in revenue to finance these continued developments.
There were reports of serious fighting on Saturday between Sudanese security forces and militias at several facilities in Darfur that were previously used by UN peacekeeping forces in that region. The UN wrapped up its Darfur peacekeeping mission last year under a plan that would have handed those facilities over to a Sudanese force made up of regular security forces and regional militia personnel, but that force never came into being and various groups have instead been competing for position. An order issued by Sudanese authorities on Wednesday for regional militias to clear out of major cities seems to have sparked this renewal of violence. I haven’t seen any reports as to casualties.
An expert report to the UN Security Council has found that a number of Darfur militias that signed on to the Sudanese government’s 2020 peace deal with most of the country’s rebel groups are nevertheless still operating across the border in Libya. In fact, they’re being so well-compensated (courtesy of the UAE, it seems) for supporting warlord Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” that they apparently have no intention of leaving Libya anytime soon. The October 2020 peace agreement that’s supposed to have ended Libya’s civil war called for all foreign fighters to leave (or be removed from) the country well before elections that were supposed to take place this past December. Those elections have been indefinitely postponed, but meanwhile even a reduction in their compensation hasn’t been enough to get those Darfur groups to head home.
Tunisian President Kais Saied has decided to rid himself of Tunisia’s Supreme Judicial Council, a body intended to protect judicial independence and, thus, an obstacle to the one-man show Saied has built since seizing nearly unchecked power back in July. Saied has been complaining about Tunisian judges for some time now and doing away with the council could allow him to exert more control over them.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
A bombing in a marketplace in the city of Beni left at least four people wounded on Saturday. As far as I know there’s been no claim of responsibility, but Beni has been a frequent target for the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces group, which operates in North Kivu province as well as elsewhere in the eastern DRC.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told Fox News Sunday on, uh, Sunday that Russia could invade Ukraine “as soon as tomorrow.” Alternatively, Sullivan said, “Russia could choose to take the diplomatic path instead.” So whatever else you want to say about the way the Biden administration has handled this situation, at least they’ve narrowed the window for an invasion down to sometime between “tomorrow” and “never.” In reality it would be highly unlikely for Russia to attempt an invasion tomorrow or really anytime in the near future, since it doesn’t have enough assets in place for such an operation. Even the US military believes the Russians only have about 70 percent of the assets in place that they’d need to undertake an invasion, and former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrii Zahorodniuk told The Guardian over the weekend that Russian forces as currently constituted could take a major Ukrainian city but would not be able to sustain a full invasion. So I think World War III is probably still a few weeks off.
French President Emmanuel Macron is going to give diplomacy another try with a visit to Moscow on Monday for a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Macron has in recent days appointed himself as the European Union’s main point of contact with the Russian leader, despite a rather mixed record in terms of his actual ability to sway Putin in a favorable direction.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is apparently so worried about his prospects for reelection later this year that he’s decided to go looking for votes in an unlikely place:
For Bolsonaro, who has dominated and divided Brazil as few politicians have, time appears to be running out. For much of the past year, as the virus he belittled killed hundreds of thousands of Brazilians and drove millions more into poverty, the polls have been grim. His approval rating has bottomed out at 22 percent. Projections show him badly trailing leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom he’ll almost certainly face in October’s election.
He’s now looking for voters wherever he can find them, including among a demographic that seems an unlikely fit for a right-wing nationalist who has spent his career waging culture wars and glorifying the country’s military. Bolsonaro wants the votes of the poor.
He tripled the number of trips he made in 2021 to the northeast, Brazil’s poorest region, where he lauded infrastructure projects as a way to bring development. He has clashed with his austerity-focused finance minister to put more money into the pockets of the poor through cash redistribution programs. Late last year, he unveiled Brazil Aid, which pays about $80 per month per person to millions of poor people — double the amount dispensed by a program created during Lula’s tenure.
There’s some precedent for this—Brazil’s COVID relief program was the one thing that actually boosted Bolsonaro’s popularity during what’s otherwise been a four year slide downhill. But Bolsonaro’s agenda has already made things so difficult for poor Brazilians that it’s unlikely a relatively last minute bid to buy their votes is going to have enough of an impact to salvage his electoral chances.
Héctor Valer’s short-lived premiership came to an official end on Saturday, when he announced that he was stepping down just four days after President Pedro Castillo named him prime minister. Allegations that Valer physically abused his daughter and late wife emerged just a day after the appointment, thus forcing Castillo to move on to what will be his fourth PM in just a bit over six months in office. Castillo’s PM choices have gone from far left to center left to the conservative Valer, so it will be interesting to see who comes next. I figure as long as his next pick hasn’t been accused of any felonies, Castillo should consider that a win.
Costa Rican voters headed to the polls on Sunday for the first round of their presidential election. As we noted a few days ago there is almost no chance this race, which includes no fewer than 25 candidates, is going to be resolved in the first round. Former President Jose Maria Figueres and former Vice President Lineth Saborío are believed to be the front runners to make it into the runoff, though polling showed a large number of undecided voters on the eve of the election so there’s considerable uncertainty about the outcome.
At least 16 people were killed in recent days in central Mexico’s Zacatecas state, probably due to fighting between local criminal gangs. Authorities discovered ten bodies at one site in the city of Fresnillo and another six in the nearby town of General Pánfilo Natera.
Finally, at Foreign Policy, Stephen Wertheim sees a debate within the Biden administration over how to respond to the situation in Ukraine:
On the surface, Americans have sounded remarkably unified during the monthslong showdown that Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated with the West. Most U.S. politicians, policymakers, and commentators blame Putin for threatening aggression in Ukraine and favor a serious response should he follow through. Just about everyone also recognizes that war against Russia—a great power and nuclear peer—cannot be an option.
Look closer, however, and a contest of ideas is underway, both within U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and outside of it. Familiar camps are taking unusual positions and pulling Biden in opposing directions. On one side are liberal internationalists, who often emphasize soft power and multilateral diplomacy but are now yearning for hard punishments to save Ukraine from falling under Russia’s sway. On the other side of the U.S. debate are the realists, who are known for prescribing just that: power to balance power. In this case though, it’s the realists who think no balance is possible in Ukraine—given Russia’s advantages. They favor diplomatic compromise between Washington and Moscow without even the threat of force.
Caught in the middle is Biden. He is showing pragmatic, realist instincts in wanting negotiations to succeed and war to be averted, but he or his advisers do not appear to be following these instincts to their logical conclusions. With the standoff threatening to turn into a major conflict in Europe, it’s time to be decisive.