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World roundup: July 9-10 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Japan, Argentina, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: Substack has finally added a voiceover feature that allows writers to embed audio files within written newsletters without those audio files being treated as podcasts. This is good news from an accessibility standpoint and is something I’ve periodically been asking about for some time now so I’m quite pleased to see they’ve done it. I intend to make use of this new feature to embed audio versions of our roundups that should be accessible via email, the Substack website, and/or the Substack app. Please bear with me as I get up to speed on using it and get into the habit of using it regularly.
Also, Eid Mubarak to those who are celebrating!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 8, 1497: A Portuguese armada sets sail under the command of Vasco da Gama bound for India. Da Gama’s completion of the route around Africa was the first direct European oceanic contact with India and stands alongside Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, for better or worse, as one of the milestones of the Age of Exploration.
July 9, 1816: The United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata declares independence from Spain. As most of those provinces went on to form Argentina, this is commemorated as Argentine Independence Day.
July 9, 1944: In one of the more decisive engagements of World War II’s Pacific Theater, the United States emerges victorious from the Battle of Saipan. Control of Saipan, the largest of the northern Mariana Islands, put the US military in position to begin B-29 bombing attacks against Japan itself. The island served as a staging point for the US reconquest of the Philippines later in 1944. The defeat also led to the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō.
July 10, 1943: In a pre-dawn landing the Allies begin their invasion of Sicily, codenamed “Operation Husky.” Although it wasn’t until mid-August that Sicily was in Allied hands the Italian military began evacuating forces from the island in late July, and the seemingly inevitable defeat proved to be the last straw for Benito Mussolini’s government, which fell on July 25. The Sicilian operation marked the first phase of the Allied invasion of Italy.
July 10, 2017: Iraqi authorities declare the city of Mosul liberated from the Islamic State, marking the recapture of the last major city in Iraq that had still been in IS’s hands. Two more large campaigns followed in Tal Afar and Hawija, but once Mosul was retaken the outcome of the campaign against IS in Iraq was no longer in doubt.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
For some reason the Biden administration decided that the public perception around Joe Biden’s upcoming Middle East trip has gotten so dismal that it made sense to write an op-ed with Biden’s name attached for publication in The Washington Post. I’m sure that will help. Biden spent most of the piece justifying his decision to go to Saudi Arabia, with which he says he’s trying to “reorient and not rupture” the bilateral relationship. Readers may note that’s a far cry from treating the kingdom as a “pariah,” per his past campaign remarks, but I’m sure that inconsistency is a small price to pay for…whatever it is Biden is hoping to achieve here.
Most guesswork about the goal of Biden’s trip continues to focus on encouraging higher levels of Saudi oil production and I assume he’ll ask for that, but I’m not sure he can get it and even if he does I’m not sure it will make much difference to global oil prices, which have already been coming down (slowly) over the past few weeks. More attainable would seem to be Biden’s less-mentioned goal of encouraging closer relations between Israel and the Arab world, and by “Arab world” I mean the Saudis. This would take the form of an ad hoc anti-Iran military alliance, which is probably not great from the standpoint of regional stability and would (assuming anybody with any political sway cares anymore) further throw the Palestinian cause under the proverbial bus. It would also extend the Biden administration’s record of criticizing the Trump administration’s Middle East policy rhetorically while expanding upon it in practice.
Iranian nuclear officials announced on Sunday that they’ve decided to start enriching uranium to the 20 percent level at a centrifuge cascade in their underground facility at Fordow. From a technical perspective that level is not far from the 90+ percent level required for weapons. It’s not a new development, as Iran has enriched uranium to that level and higher since Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018. What is somewhat new is the combination of advanced centrifuges, the hardened Fordow facility, and a configuration that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, allows the Iranians to switch quickly and easily between levels of enrichment. So the cascade they’re using for this process could in theory be easily shifted to still higher levels of enrichment without much notice.
The Biden administration could rejoin the nuclear deal and conceivably end this increasingly tense state of affairs, but the apparent agenda for Biden’s Middle East trip (see above) indicates that there’s a dwindling interest in diplomacy on this front.
Saturday’s anti-government protest in Colombo proved to be too much for Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his boss, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, both of whom announced their resignations. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out, overpowering security forces and eventually storming into and through Rajapaksa’s official residence. Wickremesinghe was the first to offer his resignation, declaring that he would step aside to clear the way for an “all-party” government. But when that didn’t satisfy the protesters, Rajapaksa finally acceded to weeks of demands and announced that he would step down effective July 13.
It’s a bit early to say what’s coming next, but at the very least the protesters don’t appear to be going anywhere. They’re apparently planning to occupy the official presidential and prime ministerial residences in Colombo until the above-mentioned resignations are official. Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, are reportedly meeting to talk about forming that “all-party” government, but there’s no indication yet as to who would serve as its president or prime minister. By law, parliament speaker Mahinda Abeywardena should assume the office of president for 30 days after Rajapaksa’s resignation, but beyond that it would be up to parliament and the new government to choose new leadership.
It would seem that the Rajapaksa family’s grip on power in Colombo may finally be coming to an end, for better or worse (most likely better, not to mention overdue). Assuming that’s true I have a hard time believing they’ll be missed, at least not by the massive crowds that turned out to demand an end to their reign.
Sunday’s House of Councillors election seems to have gone pretty well for the Liberal Democratic Party. Along with its coalition partner, the Komeito party, the LDP is projected to win between 69 and 83 of the 125 seats that were up for election. The coalition previously held 69 of those seats, so if the projection holds they’ve got nowhere to go but up. The House of Councillors is a relatively weak body, but increasing his majority in that body can only help Prime Minister Kishida Fumio advance his legislative agenda, which at the extreme end includes altering Japan’s postwar constitution to allow its “self-defense forces” to serve as a full-blown military.
Sunday’s vote of course took place in the wake of Friday’s shocking assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō during a campaign stop in Nara. The official story seems to be that Abe’s killer, a Japanese naval veteran, was angry at Abe for promoting a religious group to which the killer’s mother had made an unsustainably large financial contribution. Police aren’t naming the group but it seems pretty clear that it’s the South Korean-based Unification Church. Abe had apparently spoken (for pay) at Unification Church events, and Japanese members of the church tend to align with the LDP politically.
The nature of this newsletter precludes extended retrospectives, but I do think there’s value in pushing back against the slew of glowing memorials to Abe for being a good neoliberal and for pushing Japanese foreign policy in directions that official Washington found favorable. To that end I’d recommend this interview in The New Yorker as well as this weekend’s special episode of American Prestige featuring Chelsea Szendi Schieder.
Kiribati is quitting the Pacific Islands Forum, potentially complicating regional diplomacy in a part of the world that’s increasingly the focus of US-China competition. Kiribatian President Taneti Maamau outlined several reasons for the decision in a letter to the PIF, but the upshot is that there are grievances surrounding the PIF’s treatment of its Micronesian members, particularly in the wake of Cook Islands politician Henry Luna’s election as PIF secretary-general last February. Luna’s elevation interrupted what had been a sort of informal agreement that the secretariat would rotate between the PIF’s Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian blocs, and caused the entire Micronesian bloc to threaten to quit the Forum. That mass exodus was forestalled but apparently Kiribatian leaders weren’t satisfied with that resolution.
As promised, Tunisian President Kais Saied promulgated a new version of his proposed constitution late Friday in an attempt to soften some of the charter’s more dictatorial-seeming aspects. As far as I can tell it’s basically unchanged apart from a couple of new, vague mentions of democratic systems. It still shifts a substantial amount of parliamentary authority to the presidential office, befitting Saied’s power grab.
An apparent jihadist attack on the town of Barsalogho in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord region early Sunday left at least five civilians dead and eight soldiers wounded. Burkinabé authorities say they killed several attackers but there’s no more specific information as far as I know.
At least seven people (all children, apparently) were killed in some sort of explosion on Saturday in northern Togo’s Savanes region. Authorities still seem to be investigating the cause of the blast and it may wind up being accidental, though given its proximity to the Burkinabé border and the regional spread of jihadist violence southwards the possibility of a terrorist bombing has to at least be one of the possible scenarios under consideration.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
A group of Allied Democratic Forces fighters reportedly attacked a village in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province on Saturday, killing at least five people. Local authorities had apparently been planning to repatriate previously displaced residents in Ituri but this attack may complicate those efforts. The ADF is also believed to have been responsible for an attack on a hospital in North Kivu province on Thursday in which at least 13 people were killed.
At least 15 people were reportedly killed in one Russian strike that hit an apartment building in the town of Chasiv Yar, just west of Bakhmut, on Saturday. At last check recovery work was ongoing at the blast site (at least six people have been rescued) so there’s a possibility that the death toll will rise. The strike comes amid an escalating Russian bombardment of the remaining Ukrainian-held cities in Donetsk oblast, including Bakhmut and Slovyansk. The Russian ground advance seems to have paused to allow airstrikes and artillery to pave the way for the next phase of their offensive.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian authorities are asking residents of Kherson oblast to clear out ahead of an apparent effort to retake that province. Most of Kherson is under Russian control and has been for several weeks now, amid signs that Moscow intends to annex it at some point. There’s no indication as to when this Ukrainian offensive might begin or even that it will begin—the Ukrainians might be hoping to divert Russian resources away from the Donbas to defend against an attack that isn’t coming.
Protesters marked Argentina’s Independence Day on Saturday by taking to the streets of Buenos Aires in anger over a weak economy and over President Alberto Fernández’s recently concluded debt agreement with the ever-unpopular International Monetary Fund. Fernández is particularly in trouble with elements of the Argentine left who want higher levels of government spending to counteract inflationary pressures. Needless to say more spending isn’t really on the table with the IMF involved. To commemorate the occasion some demonstrators compared the IMF to colonial Spain and called for a “second independence” from the Fund.
The Biden administration on Saturday imposed travel restrictions on 28 Cubans, including senior Communist Party figures as well as communications and media professionals, to mark the anniversary of last year’s protests against the Cuban government. The State Department, in announcing the visa bans, accused the targeted individuals of participating in a crackdown against protesters.
Finally, over at Dissent, Aziz Rana outlines the case for a “left internationalism” that brings together both anti-imperialism and anti-authoritarianism:
The global international order seems to have entered what political theorist George Shulman has called an “interregnum.” The post–Second World War framework organized around U.S. international leadership is unraveling, but it remains unclear what will come next. As Shulman put it last year, channeling Gramsci, “the old gods are dying, the new ones have yet to be born.” To a significant degree, this unraveling is a product of American policymaking failures—whether destructive wars of choice in the Middle East, neoliberal practices that have promoted financial instability alongside extremes in wealth and immiseration, or internal political dysfunctions that have undermined any coherent strategy for dealing with a global pandemic.
Interregnums offer historical openings; they carry the potential for genuine alternatives, both good and bad. Given the degree to which democratic socialists have been systematically excluded from wielding political power, especially foreign policy authority, in the United States, one might think that the unraveling of the postwar order could present a real political opportunity. After all, that long-standing exclusion from power means that none of the strategic errors of the bipartisan U.S. national security establishment can be blamed on the left.
And yet that is not how American politics in the last year has proceeded. Instead, developments from the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have placed left foreign policy voices on the defensive. Understanding why and working through the tensions within the democratic socialist left’s foreign policy world are imperative. At present, the possible futures that lay before us appear strikingly dystopian: either we languish in an old, broken Pax Americana or we slide into a new multipolar order dictated by competing capitalist authoritarianisms. Without a strong and coherent left alternative, finding a global pathway better than these options will only be that much harder.
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