Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: March 28 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, North Korea, Russia, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
PROGRAMMING NOTE: We’ve come to our customary “Spring Break” period here at Foreign Exchanges, so following Thursday’s roundup the newsletter will be going (mostly) quiet until we resume a regular schedule on Sunday, April 9. Thanks for reading!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 27, 1941: Elements of the Yugoslav Royal Army Air Force undertake a successful (well, briefly) coup, overthrowing the pro-Axis regency led by Prince Paul Karađorđević in favor of a government nominally led by 11 year old King Peter II in his own right, alongside a junta led by new Prime Minister Dušan Simović. The Axis in short order invaded Yugoslavia and drove Peter and his government into exile before carving Yugoslavia up into a Croatian puppet state and several protectorates that were either effectively or actually annexed by Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Italy. The Yugoslav Partisans, a predominantly communist group led by Josip Broz Tito, resisted Axis occupation and, with Soviet help, had driven the Germans and Italians out of Yugoslavia by May 1945.
March 28, 1737: The expanding Maratha Empire deals a significant defeat to the past-its-peak Mughal Empire in a battle near Delhi. The outcome wasn’t decisive, as the Maratha Peshwa (similar to grand vizier or perhaps prime minister if you prefer more modern-sounding equivalents) Baji Rao I subsequently withdrew in the face of a large Mughal relief army, but it stands as one of the first definitive signs that the Mughals were being eclipsed as the dominant power in India. Subsequent battles would see the Mughals forced to cede territory and pay tribute to the Marathas.
March 28, 1939: Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces successfully capture Madrid after a nearly two and a half year siege. Franco’s initial assault on the city began in November 1936 and was beaten back by its Republican defenders, so he settled in for a long campaign that eventually wore the defenders down. Franco entered the city and declared victory just days later, on April 1, bringing an end to the Spanish Civil War.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The US and UK governments issued coordinated new sanctions on Tuesday targeting a suspected Captagon trafficking ring with alleged ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Well, I say “alleged” but in at least one sense this suspected ring is definitely linked with Assad, in that two of the newly blacklisted individuals are cousins of the Syrian leader. Syria is the undisputed world leader in the production and export of Captagon, a stimulant first introduced in the 1960s as a “safer” alternative to amphetamines, as well as Captagon knockoffs that are usually some combination of amphetamines and caffeine. A number of Syrian militant groups traffic in the drug (and their fighters frequently use it), and it’s believed the government has gotten in on the act to generate some revenue. The Captagon network targeted by Tuesday’s sanctions is alleged to be headed by Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother.
Israel is still processing the fallout from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to pause his judicial overhaul plan in the face of seemingly unprecedented opposition from several corners of Israeli society—unions, military reservists, business leaders, and much of the general public. Representatives of Netanyahu’s government and two large centrist or center-right opposition parties, Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party, met on Tuesday to begin exploring a potential compromise alternative to the judicial plan, though it’s far too soon to say whether there’s any common ground that will satisfy the opposition and the far-right elements of Netanyahu’s coalition. Far-right parties have some leverage in this process, as they could threaten to quit the coalition and force a new election, but there’s not much reason to think a new election would benefit them, especially not amid this turmoil.
If the parties are unable to reach an accord, Netanyahu will almost certainly try to bring back the same overhaul legislation he shelved on Monday. The big question, then, is whether he’ll be able to pass it. The answer may depend to a large degree on whether the massive and unlikely coalition that assembled to force Monday’s pause can stay committed to the cause. Netanyahu may be betting that it can’t, but only time will tell. At this point, however, it seems evident that this whole affair has damaged his coalition politically and intensified a number of preexisting fault lines in Israeli society, which could manifest in unexpected ways. If right-wing supporters of the overhaul come out more energetically in its defense moving forward, what was already a precarious situation could become even more combustible. That’s not to say that Israel is on the verge of “civil war,” as President Isaac Herzog has suggested, but its politics seem to be entering a place they’ve never really been before.
One thing that apparently will not be happening, yet, is a Netanyahu visit to the White House. It’s been nearly four months since Netanyahu became PM again and Joe Biden has still not invited him to stop by, which appears to be causing the Israeli leader some embarrassment. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Biden had finally extended such an invite to Netanyahu in response to the judicial pause, but the White House subsequently doused that report with cold water. The US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, did tell Israeli media on Tuesday that “there’s no question” Netanyahu will be invited to the White House at some point, but he did not offer a date or suggest that said invitation was imminent. Indeed, Netanyahu sniped at Biden later in the day to stay out of Israel’s business. One wonders if that means he’s going to start rejecting US military aid.
The Bahraini Foreign Ministry summoned Iraq’s chargé d’affaires in Manama on Tuesday for unspecified “interference” in Bahrain’s “internal affairs.” The Iraqi Foreign Ministry subsequently removed the diplomat, Omar Abdul Rahman, from Bahrain and transferred him back to the ministry in Baghdad.
In case you missed it, new FX contributor Djene Bajalan wrote about the Mahsa Amini protests from the perspective of Iran’s Kurdish community:
For a significant proportion of the Iranian Kurdish community (some 8-15 percent of the Iranian population), Amini has come to be seen not simply as a victim of Iran’s conservative political establishment, but also as a symbol of the Iranian state’s ongoing oppression of their community. In recent months, Iran’s predominately Kurdish northwest has been the center of some of the most sustained protests as well as being on the receiving end of some of the most violent government repression. Moreover, the uprising in Iranian Kurdistan has been distinct, in a political sense, from similar rebellions in other parts of the country. In addition to denouncing Iran’s rulers, Kurdish demonstrators have rallied behind chants of “Long live the Kurds and Kurdistan” as well as slogans in favor of exiled Kurdish opposition groups.
It would be a mistake to assume that the nationalistic posture of these protests represents the entirety of Kurdish opinion. Whether out of a deeply held Iranian patriotism or for more opportunistic reasons, there have long been elements of Kurdish society that have supported Tehran’s rule. Nevertheless, the current unrest in Iranian Kurdistan has exposed the deep ambivalence of many Kurds towards their membership in the “Iranian nation,” an ambivalence born of historical experience.
Myanmar’s ruling junta on Tuesday dissolved 40 political parties, including the National League of Democracy party led by former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Those parties apparently failed to register for Myanmar’s next election, whenever that might be, which is supposed to restore the civilian governance that the junta eliminated in its February 2021 coup. It’s likely that election will merely ratify military rule under a civilian guise, which is one reason why the NLD opted out—the junta’s continued imprisonment of Suu Kyi and other senior party leaders is another.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered officials involved with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program to pursue an “exponential” increase in the country’s available weapons grade material on Tuesday, according to North Korean media. Sounds great. Photos appear to show Kim inspecting a still hypothetical-weapon known as the “Hwasan-31,” which if/when it becomes operational will be North Korea’s first tactical nuclear device. Kim views tactical nukes, which can be fired relatively quickly, as a key goal for bolstering Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent. There’s as yet no indication that the North Koreans have actually tested a tactical warhead, though North Korea watchers have been predicting a new nuclear test for some time now.
Having resolved, at least for now, his government’s conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told parliament on Tuesday that he’s reached out to another rebel faction, the Oromo Liberation Army, about the possibility of peace talks. Abiy has established a committee to manage the process and that committee, according to him, has made ten attempts at contacting the group. However, the OLA’s decentralized structure has apparently made establishing lines of communication a challenge. An OLA spokesperson dismissed Abiy’s remarks, saying that those ten tries were “not genuine attempts to contact the OLA leadership.” He claimed instead that the government has been reaching out to individual OLA commanders “to convince them to surrender.”
REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Pirates reportedly boarded a Liberian-flagged, Danish-owned tanker in the Gulf of Guinea on Saturday, some 140 nautical miles off of the Congolese port city of Pointe-Noire. The 16 crew members aboard were apparently able to get to a safe room though as far as I know there’s been no update on their status, nor does anyone seem to know where exactly the vessel is at present as there’s been no communication with it since the pirates turned up. The Gulf of Guinea remains one of the world’s most dangerous shipping lanes with respect to pirate activity.
With the Russian government having suspended the inspections portion of the New START arms control accord, the Biden administration decided on Tuesday to scrap another part of the treaty by withholding the nuclear data it is supposed to provide to Moscow twice per year. When Vladimir Putin announced the inspections halt last month, Russian officials were at pains to say they would maintain New START’s data-sharing requirements, but the Biden administration says it views withholding the data as a tool to pressure Putin into reversing course. It seems to me that Putin isn’t big on “reversing course” due to external pressure these days, but what do I know? The US is still apparently going to continue fulfilling its treaty obligation to notify Russia of any changes in the disposition of US nuclear forces.
The leader of the Russian-controlled parts of Donetsk oblast, Denis Pushilin, claimed on Tuesday that Russian forces were advancing again in Bakhmut, after several days in which Ukranian officials had been claiming that the Russian offensive was stalling they’re still claiming this, in fact). According to Pushilin, Russian forces are close to taking full control of a large industrial area on the western side of the Bakhmutka River. There’s no confirmation of Pushilin’s claims but neither has there been any confirmation of those Ukrainian claims that the Russians had stopped advancing.
Polling ahead of Sunday’s Finnish parliamentary election suggests that the conservative National Coalition Party (KOK) is losing ground to the two parties polling behind it, Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party and the far-right Finns Party. The latest poll from the firm Kantar Public has the KOK at 19.8 percent support with the other two parties at 19.2 percent each. That’s down from a 20.8-19.3 KOK lead over the two other parties in the same survey in mid-February. The leader of the party that emerges with the largest share of the vote will have first crack at forming a governing coalition.
Norway is set to assume the chair of the eight-member Arctic Council from Russia (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and the United States are the other six members) on May 11, though it’s unclear how that process is going to be completed under the circumstances. Moscow has proposed an in-person “transition ceremony” but there’s no chance that’s going to happen and Norwegian officials have instead proposed a low key virtual changeover. The council has basically been on hiatus since Russia invaded Ukraine, at which point the other seven members simply refused to participate under Russian leadership. The Russians may now decide to suspend their participation.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has scheduled that country’s parliamentary election for May 21, amid polling that suggests his conservative New Democracy party could lose its majority. High inflation and a mismanaged response to a major train accident last month—likely the result of consistently underfunding the Greek rail system—are taking their toll on Mitsotakis’s public standing. New Democracy currently has 158 seats and needs 151 for a majority in the 300 seat Greek parliament. If no party is able to hit that 151 seat margin they’ll have a chance to negotiate a coalition arrangement, but if that also fails another election will probably be held in July under a system that should be considerably more generous in allocating seats to larger parties like New Democracy.
A fire at a Ciudad Juárez “migration center” (detention facility) for asylum seekers attempting to enter the US left at least 40 people dead and dozens more injured on Tuesday. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested that the fire was related to a protest in the facility by a group of detainees who’d learned that they were being deported. This claim may not be tenable given the nature of the facility, which really does appear to operate more or less as a prison (partly due to overcrowding) and so it’s unclear how the detainees would have had access to anything that could start a fire. There’s no indication of intentional foul play, apart from an intentionally foul US immigration system that stranded these people in an overcrowded Mexican prison when they should have been allowed to pursue their asylum claims in the US.
Finally, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asked members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to stop asking the US military services for lists of “unfunded priorities.” These are goodies that didn’t make it into the administration’s proposed military budget. Congress collects these lists every year and crams a bunch of priorities back into the budget, which is how, for example, it wound up padding the Biden administration’s 2023 military budget request with an extra $45 billion. On that note, then, please read William Astore’s timely TomDispatch piece on the contemporary state of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex:
In April 1953, newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a retired five-star Army general who had led the landings on D-Day in France in June 1944, gave his most powerful speech. It would become known as his “Cross of Iron” address. In it, Ike warned of the cost humanity would pay if Cold War competition led to a world dominated by wars and weaponry that couldn’t be reined in. In the immediate aftermath of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Ike extended an olive branch to the new leaders of that empire. He sought, he said, to put America and the world on a “highway to peace.” It was, of course, never to be, as this country’s emergent military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) chose instead to build a militarized (and highly profitable) highway to hell.
Eight years later, in his famous farewell address, a frustrated and alarmed president called out “the military-industrial complex,” prophetically warning of its anti-democratic nature and the disastrous rise of misplaced power that it represented. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, fully engaged in corralling, containing, and constraining it, he concluded, could save democracy and bolster peaceful methods and goals.
The MICC’s response was, of course, to ignore his warning, while waging a savage war on communism in the name of containing it. In the process, atrocious conflicts would be launched in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the contagion of war spread. Threatened with the possibility of peace in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the MICC bided its time with operations in Iraq (Desert Storm), Bosnia, and elsewhere, along with the expansion of NATO, until it could launch an unconstrained Global War on Terror in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Those “good times” (filled with lost wars) lasted until 2021 and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Not to be deterred by the fizzling of the nightmarish war on terror, the MICC seized on a “new cold war” with China and Russia, which only surged when, in 2022, Vladimir Putin so disastrously invaded Ukraine (as the U.S. had once invaded Afghanistan and Iraq). Yet again, Americans were told that they faced implacable foes that could only be met with overwhelming military power and, of course, the funding that went with it — again in the name of deterrence and containment.
In a way, in 1953 and later in 1961, Ike, too, had been urging Americans to launch a war of containment, only against an internal foe: what he then labeled for the first time “the military-industrial complex.” For various reasons, we failed to heed his warnings. As a result, over the last 70 years, it has grown to dominate the federal government as well as American culture in a myriad of ways. Leaving aside funding where it’s beyond dominant, try movies, TV shows, video games, education, sports, you name it. Today, the MICC is remarkably uncontained. Ike’s words weren’t enough and, sadly, his actions too often conflicted with his vision (as in the CIA’s involvement in a coup in Iran in 1953). So, his worst nightmare did indeed come to pass. In 2023, along with much of the world, America does indeed hang from a cross of iron, hovering closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.