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World roundup: March 4-5 2023
Stories from Iran, Estonia, Mexico, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 3, 1878: The Treaty of San Stefano ends the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War with a decisive Russian victory. The treaty was so lopsided, and in particular the amount of territory given to Bulgaria was so large, that Britain and France stepped in and forced it to be substantially revised at the Congress of Berlin held that summer.
March 3, 1918: The Bolshevik government of Russia signs the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with the Central Powers, marking Russia’s formal withdrawal from World War I. In addition to quitting the war, Russia ceded its claims on Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine in Eastern Europe, all of which were expected to come under German domination, and its territories in the Caucasus, which were expected to come under Ottoman domination. Naturally all of those plans were upset when the Central Powers lost the war.
March 4, 1493: Christopher Columbus and his crew aboard the Niña arrive at the port of Lisbon, Portugal, on their return from his first voyage to the lands soon to be known as the Americas. After navigating some legal hot water over interpretations of the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas, which divided the Atlantic into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence, Columbus returned to Spain, convinced he’d charted a western route to Asia. He was slightly off, but to be fair they eventually figured that out.
March 5, 363: The Roman Emperor Julian, later dubbed “Julian the Apostate” since he has the distinction of being the last non-Christian Roman ruler, leads his army east to invade the Sasanian (Persian) Empire. Roman invasions of Persia generally turned out to be mistakes, and though Julian was a skilled military commander this campaign was certainly no exception. After some initial successes, Julian gave up his plan to besiege Ctesiphon and instead he led his army on an aimless march through Mesopotamia, harassed the whole way by Persian forces. He died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Samarra in June. The army chose his successor, a general named Jovian who ordered a prompt retreat back to Roman territory.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A group of 100 United Nations member states reached agreement over the weekend on the “High Seas Treaty” (I’m sure it will get a fancier name at some point), which has been under negotiation for about 15 years now and is meant to conserve and rebuild ocean ecosystems. At present, territorial waters may be protected to some degree (it depends on the country in question), but international waters are a free for all, a status that has had deleterious effects on biodiversity in particular. It remains to be seen whether enough UN members will ratify the treaty for it to become “binding,” and I put “binding” in quotes because nothing the UN does is truly binding without an enforcement mechanism, particularly with respect to the United States which invariably does what it wants, where it wants, when it wants.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Sunday that his finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, had “misspoken” when he called for the West Bank town of Huwara to be “wiped out” on Wednesday. Sure, let’s go with that. Smotrich himself said in an interview on Saturday that he “did not mean harm to innocents,” though it’s unclear how one could “wipe out” an entire town without harming any of its residents. I’m sure an AI could figure it out. His initial comment drew a rare rebuke from the US government, as State Department spokesperson Ned Price characterized it as “irresponsible,” “repugnant,” “disgusting.” Of course this was purely rhetorical—even if the Israeli government actually did “wipe out” Huwara it wouldn’t change anything about US policy.
Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah appointed Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf al-Sabah as Kuwait’s new prime minister. If that name seems familiar it may be because Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf al-Sabah was already Kuwaiti prime minister. He and his cabinet resigned back in January amid their continued impasse with the Kuwaiti parliament. The royal family and opposition legislators disagree on several areas of policy and on parliament’s frequent demands to question members of the cabinet. Sheikh Mishal dissolved parliament last year in hopes that a snap election would produce a friendlier legislature, but it didn’t work out that way.
Protesters took to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities on Saturday over a string of unexplained illnesses that have struck schoolgirls across the country since November. Iranian officials have raised the possibility that the girls are being poisoned, but they haven’t offered an especially compelling suspect beyond “enemies” and it seems a fair number of people suspect instead that extremist elements within the Iranian security establishment (specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Basij paramilitary unit) are responsible.
Elsewhere, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, seems very pleased with the results of his trip to Iran this week, telling reporters on Saturday that he and Iranian officials “agreed on a number of very concrete things.” According to Grossi the Iranians agreed to restore IAEA monitoring cameras that they’ve removed or allowed to lapse into disuse since Donald Trump wrecked the Iran nuclear deal back in 2018. He says they also agreed to allow more frequent IAEA inspections at Iran’s Fordow uranium enrichment plant and to make nuclear personnel available for IAEA interviews (Iranian officials have denied this last bit in particular, so clearly they and Grossi aren’t entirely on the same page in terms of what they discussed). As to the issue that brought Grossi to Iran in the first place, the discovery of trace amounts of 84 percent enriched uranium at Fordow, the IAEA boss said there’s no evidence the Iranians are actively producing or stockpiling uranium at that level, though it’s still unclear how those trace amounts were generated.
A skirmish between Azerbaijani soldiers and security forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh regional government left at least five people dead on Sunday. According to Azerbaijani authorities their troops intercepted a convoy they believed was carrying weapons. There’s no indication that it was actually carrying weapons, and officials in Karabakh characterized the suspicion as “absurd.”
Pakistani police decided to stop by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s home in Lahore on Sunday for a friendly chat and also to arrest him over allegations that he illegally sold official gifts he received while PM. A court in Islamabad issued a warrant for the ex-PM’s arrest on Tuesday after he’d apparently missed a number of hearings related to the case. Khan somehow managed to avoid the fuzz and later spoke to a crowd of his supporters, characterizing the attempted arrest as part of a general “threat” to his life that also apparently includes the attack on his person in Wazirabad back in November. Whether or not the legal case against Khan is legitimate, this situation is a powder keg.
The Chinese government is planning to increase defense spending by 7.2 percent in 2023, a rate that’s 0.1 percent higher than its 2022 increase and significantly higher than the government’s 5 percent GDP growth projection. That level of increase is consistent with building up in expectation of a war, presumably with the United States, though I cannot say whether that’s because Chinese leaders want to kill you and everyone you’ve ever loved or because a bunch of people in the US government keep talking about going to war with them. And even with that increase Beijing is spending $224 billion on its military this year compared with a cool $858 billion for the US, though China does have some advantages in terms of purchasing power. US analysts often claim that China understates its annual level of defense spending, but I have no idea whether they have any factual basis for that assertion.
A study from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published this week determined that China is ahead of the US in 37 of 42 “advanced technologies,” like 6G telecommunications and hypersonic weapons. But at least the US has more aircraft carriers, and I think some of them actually work. So that’s cool. I mention the study mostly because you may have read something about it, but as the ASPI is funded by the Australian government in combination with a whole bunch of tech firms, defense contractors, and other friendly governments who all have a vested interest in hyping The Chinese Threat, I’m not sure how much weight I’d give to their research.
Protests were the order of the weekend in Tunisia. On Saturday, the country’s largest trade union, UGTT, brought thousands of people into the streets of Tunis over the country’s weak economy and in opposition to President Kais Saied’s authoritarianism. Hundreds marched on Sunday to demand the release of some 20 political opponents jailed by Saied’s government over the past few weeks. Sunday’s protest was organized by the National Salvation Front, a coalition of opposition parties.
Authorities in Burkina Faso have imposed an overnight curfew in the country’s Nord region and part of its Centre-Est region through at least the end of this month in an effort to bolster their fight against Islamist militants. The Est region is already under an overnight curfew through at least mid-May, and seeing as how that curfew has been in place since 2019 I suspect it will be renewed.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir fired Interior Minister Mahmoud Solomon and Defense Minister Angelina Teny on Friday, which could have serious implications for the country’s ongoing peace process. Teny is a member of Vice President Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition party—and she’s Machar’s wife, to boot—and the agreement Kiir and Machar made to settle their longstanding hostilities back in 2018 specifies that SPLM-IO is supposed to control the defense ministry. Kiir apparently decided that he’d like his own Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party to control the defense ministry and thought he’d give Machar control of the interior ministry as a consolation. I haven’t seen any reaction yet from Machar.
Estonian voters went to the polls on Sunday to choose a new parliament, and it would appear they’ve opted for continuity instead of change. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’s Reform Party has won with a bit over 31 percent of the vote and will likely gain a couple of seats over the 34 it already controlled. She’ll once again need to form a majority coalition, but since her party will probably wind up only about 14 seats shy of a majority in the 101 seat legislature that shouldn’t be a major hurdle. The far-right EKRE party finished in second place, but the 16-ish percent it won is a bit worse than the party performed in 2019, when it finished third. The runner up in 2019, the Centre Party, was the night’s big loser, dropping around 10 seats with most of its lost support apparently winding up with the also-pretty-centrist Estonia 200 party. Turnout was around 64 percent, which is in line with precedent and suggests that talk of a boycott by ethnic Russians (over Kallas’s staunch support for Ukraine) was just talk.
Fighting continues to rage around Bakhmut, with no indication yet that Ukrainian authorities are withdrawing or preparing to withdraw their forces from the almost totally encircled city. It’s still not clear what they’re hoping to gain by leaving their garrison in Bakhmut. Possibly they feel they’re wearing the Russian attackers down, but the defense has worn Ukrainian forces down as well and Russia still has greater capacity to absorb losses of men and materiel and to churn out ammunition. That said, Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose forces are still spearheading the assault on Bakhmut, claimed again over the weekend that they’re not getting the ammunition they need and warned that they might have to withdraw—which could have chaotic effects on the Russian front line.
Elsewhere, two Ukrainian pilots have reportedly been brought to Arizona for flight simulator training with the US Air Force. This is probably the first step toward supplying the Ukrainians with F-16s, though unsurprisingly nobody in the US government is saying that. They’re supposedly training on Ukrainian military jets in order to improve their piloting, which is all very simple and believable but I would assume they’re also being evaluated for potential training on US craft.
The Ecuadorean National Assembly voted on Saturday to approve an investigative report that recommends opening impeachment proceedings against President Guillermo Lasso on corruption charges. The report finds evidence that Lasso has been selling jobs in and contracts with state-owned companies, charges that Lasso has unsurprisingly denied. The vote doesn’t mean the legislature will impeach Lasso but it could signal a move in that direction.
In contrast to the lurid sensationalism of the Anglo-American establishment press, the actual law itself is quite mundane. The National Electoral Institute (INE) is widely recognized to be riddled with excess expenditure and a top-heavy bureaucracy. The new law simply mandates similar cost-saving measures to those that the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has applied to other governmental departments. It eliminates duplicate functions at the local and district level, and fuses certain higher-level job descriptions. It also reins in eye-catching top salaries. By means of comparison, in a country where the minimum wage is approximately US$10 per day, the head of the institute makes the pretax equivalent of some US$13,000 per month, plus benefits, bonuses, a vehicle, a private insurance plan, generous phone and food stipends, and a battery of eleven advisors, four of whom earn more than the president.
The law also facilitates voting rights for the disabled, those held in pretrial detention, and the millions of migrants living abroad. It provides tougher sanctions for the endemic practice of vote-buying and enshrines in law the inclusion of minorities and members of vulnerable groups on candidate lists. It establishes a commission to study the application of electronic voting. And, in light of a series of incidents in which the INE sought to ban people from running for office for actions as innocuous as tweeting, the law reduces its ability to interfere arbitrarily with citizens’ political rights.
The legislation does have its debatable points. Questions exist as to how the Foreign Relations Secretary — an arm of the government — is going to administer international voting in the absence of the INE. Conservatives are particularly up in arms about provisions to allow foreign voters to vote with their passports instead of the voter ID cards that are obligatory within Mexico.
There are concerns that an excess of flexibility may allow parties to play fast and loose in applying gender and minority candidacy quotas. Others worry that a clause prohibiting slander in political advertising could have an inhibiting effect on free speech. All of these are valid observations — but far from the apocalyptic hysteria of the English-language press.
A new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime finds that illicit weapons from the United States are flooding Haiti, where they’re being purchased primarily by criminal gangs. These include everything from handguns to rifles to machine guns. As is the case in Mexico, guns from the US are making it easier for criminal networks to function and that helps contribute to the flow of drugs going in the opposite direction. This is the part of the “War on Drugs” that almost nobody in Washington seems interested in mentioning.
Finally, at Rolling Stone Spencer Ackerman traces a line from the Iraq War to the many other, albeit less consequential, grifts that the US has seen over the last couple of decades:
Perhaps it has worked out that way because so few people deceiving the public have paid any appreciable legal, political, or reputational price. Paul Yingling, an Army armor officer who served in Iraq’s Nineveh province, wrote in 2007 that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” From the vantage of 2023, it feels quaint that anyone ever thought it would be otherwise.
Bush and Cheney have been functionally rehabilitated by the Trump presidency rather than viewed as its preconditions. One of the most important Democratic validators of the war is our current president. Cultural cues like these function as permission, something [former Theranos CEO Elizabeth] Holmes’ prosecutors evidently understood: They said they weren’t just seeking to convict Holmes, they wanted to deter “future startup fraud schemes.” The distance of 20 years makes it easier to see that the disaster of Iraq, combined with the impunity its architects enjoyed, proved that lying and scheming and enabling at ever-greater scale would result in no real reprisal for the powerful.
The prevailing consensus now is that the Iraq War was a mistake, a deviation born of post-9/11 madness. In reality, it’s an endeavor that captures the spirit of an age of grift. It was a big con — built on cherished myths of American power, greatness, and justice — that heralded a thousand more.
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