You may have noticed that I’ve been away for a couple of weeks. While I’m absolutely not going to try to catch you up on everything that’s happened while I’ve been away, I will be interspersing the usual daily news with a few stories that developed over that time.
On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the US diplomatic mission in Russia must cut 755 people from its staff. That’s a huge number, but while some of them will be US nationals who will now have to return to the US, it’s likely that many more will be Russian nationals who had been hired by the Americans. Putin was responding to the latest sanctions bill passed by Congress last week, a bill that the White House said over the weekend that Trump will sign (to be fair, the sanctions measure passed both houses with veto-proof majorities). The relatively odd figure of 755 makes some sense in that it reduces the overall US diplomatic presence in Russia to 455, or equal to the size of Russia’s diplomatic presence in the US. And I think that symbolism indicates that Putin wants this move to be seen as a proportional response to US sanctions rather than an escalation.
In a move that seems unlikely to defuse tensions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk separatists a couple of weeks ago declared that they’ve founded a new country called “Malorossiya” or “Little Russia.” This is distinct from “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia,” a name that some separatists, and Vladimir Putin, have been using to describe eastern Ukraine, in that it’s meant to apply to all of Ukraine and not just the separatist east. It’s also a name that doesn’t even have much support among other Ukrainian rebels–the Luhansk separatists, for example, want nothing to do with it. Neither, it would seem, does Moscow.
In another (potential) move that seems unlikely to defuse tensions, the Trump administration is weighing the possibility of sending “defensive” weapons to Kiev like anti-tank and possibly anti-aircraft units–even though the Donbas rebels don’t, you know, have any aircraft.
REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA
The prime ministers of Bulgaria and Macedonia signed a friendship treaty in Skopje on Tuesday that might help boost Macedonia’s chances of getting into NATO and/or the European Union. Macedonia is hamstrung in its efforts to gain admittance into those organizations in part due to its uncomfortable history with its neighbors–particularly Greece, which insists that the name “Macedonia” belongs to Greece and that the Balkan republic’s use of it reflects its designs on Greek territory. But Macedonia’s relationship with Bulgaria also hasn’t been great, so this treaty will help on that front, and as part of the treaty Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov promised to support Macedonia’s case for entry into both organizations. That’s probably not enough to overcome Greece’s objections, but it can’t hurt.
I love everything about this piece by Senegalese journalist Pape Samba Kane on Emmanuel Macron’s neocolonialist approach to Africa:
President Macron, born long after French colonies became independent, displays an ostensible modernism, and – at least on the surface – attacks the obsolete political apparatuses, which, according to him, harm the vitality of the French society. As a result, perhaps too naively, many Africans expected him to change the old “Francafrique” – France’s relations with its former colonies in Africa – for the better.
But the reality is more than disappointing. So far, Macron not only insisted on the continuity of France’s economic dominance in the region as a former colonial power, but he also signalled his support for French military presence in the continent. Within the first weeks of his presidency, he has also clearly demonstrated that his assumptions about Africa and Africans are just as racist and colonialist as his predecessors’.
President Michel Temer is facing an impeachment vote in Congress, possibly as soon as Wednesday, that could see him at least suspended from office for six months while he stands trial before the country’s supreme court over corruption charges. It’s a vote he’s likely to win, however, as it would take 2/3 of the lower house to refer his case to the court and trigger the suspension. Temer probably has enough supporters left to keep him safe, at least this time around. But there’s a pretty good chance that if he wins this vote he’ll be hit with a whole new set of obstruction charges by Brazil’s chief prosecutor, which would force another vote. And, you know, with polling that shows 80 percent of Brazilians want Temer to stand trial and over 70 percent say that any legislator who protects him should be voted out of office, there’s a real question as to how many times these folks are going to be willing to take the hit for their president.
The US Treasury Department blacklisted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Monday, following a Sunday vote arranged by Maduro to create a constituent assembly that will be empowered to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. As the opposition boycotted the vote, the new assembly is stacked with Maduro loyalists who could help him redesign the Venezuelan government to dissolve or at least marginalize the opposition-controlled legislature. The boycott aside, there are allegations of serious irregularities in the voting (e.g., no procedures to prevent people from voting multiple times, no option on the ballot for voters to vote against the assembly altogether). And the two sides are arguing about how many people turned out to vote–the opposition says turnout was only 12 percent, while Maduro’s government claims it was over 40. At least 10 people were killed in violent protests on Sunday, meaning that around 120 people overall have been killed since serious anti-Maduro protests began in late March. These are people on both sides of the dispute, pro- and anti-Maduro, who have been killed.
Venezuela is obviously not my area, but I find it difficult to tread the line between parroting Washington Blob talking points and defending a president whose behavior doesn’t strike me as defensible. I know that Venezuela has been a target of US meddling for years now, always of course directed at the pro-capitalist right because those are the guys with whom we can do Business. And while Maduro has mismanaged the Venezuelan economy badly, I’m not sure anybody could have saved such a heavily oil-dependent economy from the collapse in global oil prices. So he’s been under considerable pressure from factors that aren’t entirely, or even mostly, under his control.
But the thing about governing a democracy is that there are rules, and I don’t just mean weak norms like the ones everybody gets upset at Donald Trump for violating. There are tenets, like the right of the public to assemble for protest without being put down by security forces, that are simply non-negotiable. There are also basic rules, like “elections have consequences,” that a president can’t break without turning himself into a dictator. If your opposition wins control of the legislature in a legitimate election, then you deal with that and try to make the best of it. You don’t get your supreme court to try to usurp legislative power and, when that fails, order a constituent assembly so you can dissolve the legislature and start over. Likewise, tossing your political opponents in jail for speaking to the media is not really something you’re supposed to do.
Is Venezuela’s right-wing opposition so discredited by American support that Maduro is justified in arresting them, or in redoing the country’s constitution to root it out of the government altogether? That’s a pretty incendiary argument, but it could certainly be true. However, I would be more convinced of its legitimacy if there were any evidence that Maduro still has a broad base of popular support. There really isn’t.
To me, the best thing that could happen at this point would be for the Trump administration to butt the fuck out and let Venezuela, possibly with the Organization for American States though the OAS has become captive to right-wing interests, resolve this situation. Even sanctioning Maduro seems ridiculous–yes, this constituent assembly vote smells bad, but Maduro is now on a list with Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-un, and Robert Mugabe, which is nuts. I’m (obviously) not a Maduro fan, but he hasn’t even been as repressive as many leaders with whom President Trump gets along quite well, so singling him out like this smacks of arbitrary policymaking. Maduro’s main crime from Washington’s point of view clearly seems to be–as it was for his predecessor, Hugo Chavez- his unacceptable leftism.
It’s late and I’m out of shape for writing these things, so rather than try to analyze the latest OMG NEW REVELATIONS about Donald Trump’s pending impeachment or the full-on prairie brush fire that is his White House, I’ll leave you with two pieces I read while I was away that I found interesting, and troubling. First is from Jack Goldsmith at Lawfare, where he notes the Trump administration’s, as he puts it, “strange combination of menacing and impotent”:
The menacing element is plain. Trump sets everyone on edge with incessant verbal attacks and relentlessly indecorous behavior. The maelstrom that is his presidency seems like it could at any moment push the country off the rails—massive pardons to kill the Russia investigation, a Justice Department meltdown as a result of firings and resignations, a North Korean miscalculation, or who-knows-what-other-crazy-thing. Many people worry how the impulsive Trump will handle his first crisis.
As for impotence, Trump has accomplished nothing beyond conservative judicial appointments. His administration is otherwise a comedy of errors in the exercise of executive power. What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive. Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials. I’m not talking about so-called “deep state” bureaucrats. I’m talking about senior officials in the Justice Department and the military and intelligence and foreign affairs agencies. And they are not just ignoring or contradicting him in private. They are doing so in public for all the world to see.
Goldsmith lists many of the ways Trump’s top officials have basically just ignored him over the past six months, and while I’ve been aware that this is a phenomenon in this administration, it’s striking to see it compiled.
The second piece is on Rex Tillerson’s ongoing effort to destroy the State Department:
Foggy Bottom initially had high hopes for Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO Trump tapped to become his diplomat-in-chief. But those hopes have evaporated as diplomats grow increasingly exasperated by his isolation and aloofness, all while the White House and Pentagon steamroll the State Department’s role in foreign-policy making.
Current and former senior foreign service officers say the Trump administration is hollowing out and marginalizing the State Department, with a dismissive attitude to diplomacy and the civil servants who execute it. They say the diplomatic corps is facing an unprecedented crisis. When Tillerson has tried to defend his ailing department, he has gotten stonewalled and outmaneuvered by the White House.
“If you break the way the State Department actually functions, then you’re going to have chaos,” said one official who recently quit, speaking on condition of anonymity. “People aren’t going to make decisions — you haven’t empowered anyone to make decisions. People don’t trust anyone, so then it all has to run through you.”
Tillerson wants to massively expand the department’s policy planning staff, a group of political appointees who directly advise the secretary, while drastically cutting personnel in other areas–or, in other words, he’s bringing in a ton of true believers at the expense of career foreign service officers. And while you and I may have issues with the way American foreign policy has been run and the culture of the foreign service establishment, I hope we can agree that the kind of true believers that this administration is likely to bring in are going to be vastly more destructive and less competent than the people who have been at State for many years.
The State Department needs reform. Hell, it would be hard to find any office in the federal government that doesn’t need reform of some kind. But I don’t want the Trump administration doing the reforming, thanks just the same. The best-case scenario for the next (hopefully) four years is that Trump leaves the government the same busted up mess it was when he got there. Any change he makes is going to be for the worse.
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