World update: March 23 2018

This will be the last update for March. I’m taking next week off and will return the first week of April. It’s also going to be an early and abbreviated update. Apologies.


The United Nations World Food Program boss, David Beasley, said on Friday that the number of “acutely hungry” people in the world–people who are at imminent risk of dying without food aid–jumped to 124 million last year, mostly due to conflict.



The Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group has agreed to leave Eastern Ghouta and be relocated to Idlib province, in a deal similar to the one negotiated by Ahrar al-Sham in Harasta a few days ago. An estimated 7000 people are expected to start leaving the area on Saturday, and those who stay have been promised immunity. Of the three main rebel factions in Eastern Ghouta, only Jaysh al-Islam, in Douma, continues to hold out.


The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) says its fighters will leave Sinjar, ostensibly because they’ve accomplished their goal of saving the Yazidis from genocide but in reality to forestall a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. It’s not clear when their withdrawal is supposed to take place, but the PKK will presumably keep its stronghold in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, a frequent target for Turkish airstrikes.


Israeli authorities are going ahead with plans to demolish the Bedouin town of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev and replace it with a Jewish town, Hiran. The current Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran, an “unregistered town” subject to this kind of destruction, will not be permitted to settle in the new community.

Ethnic cleansing? What ethnic cleansing?


The US Department of Justice on Friday charged nine Iranians with hacking several targets in the United States while working for the Iranian military. The alleged hackers targeted several US universities and companies and seem to have been after intellectual property.

With John Bolton’s appointment as National Security Advisor signaling yet again that Donald Trump plans on scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, the European Union is looking for ways to insulate its firms that are doing business in Iran from US sanctions. Emergency lines of credit will help protect firms from losing access to US banks, and they may make legal challenges to any attempt to apply sanctions retroactively to deals signed while those sanctions were being waived. The Europeans see these measures as important not only to protect their firms but to try to maintain as much of the nuclear accord as possible in order to encourage Iran to stick with its commitments.



As many as 20 people may have been killed on Friday by a bomb outside a sports stadium in Helmand province. There’s been no claim of responsibility as yet. Helmand is prime Taliban territory.

Anyway, things in Afghanistan are really going great. Just ask the Pentagon.


The political campaign in advance of Malaysia’s August general election is turning increasingly vindictive:

Politics in Malaysia are heating up and getting nastier, with scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak and his nemesis Mahathir Mohamad trading insults ahead of an election that threatens to end the ruling party’s long-held grip on power.


The fighting also taking a toll on others as well. One example is leading businessman Robert Kuok, who has been caught in the crossfire and been forced to reconfirm his Malaysian allegiances after it was reported he had offered financial support for the opposition, whose figurehead Anwar Ibrahim continues to languish in prison.


The pre-election spats between Mahathir and Najib have ranged from personal barbs to attacks on the rising costs of living, and has even indulged their choice of breakfast grain — rice or quinoa — making for a rather banal start to what promises to be a most torrid election campaign.

Najib is a slim favorite to retain power, but largely because the political system has been rigged to benefit his United Malays National Organization party. The opposition may win the overall popular vote but still fail to gain a majority due to, among other things, high levels of gerrymandering.



Zambia’s opposition United Party for National Development has filed a parliamentary motion to impeach President Edgar Lungu. They accuse him of violating the constitution following questions around his victory in the 2016 presidential election. Since a 2/3 majority would be required to successfully impeach Lungu, his position is probably secure.



The fallout from the Sergei Skripal affair continues to grow. On Friday, EU leaders promised to take “additional punitive measures” against Russia for its alleged nerve agent attack on the former double agent in Britain. This presumably means sanctions. Leaders from Poland, the Czech Republic, and the three Baltic states are considering expelling Russian diplomats from their own capitals. Meanwhile, 23 British diplomats are preparing to leave Russia after being expelled by Moscow last weekend in retaliation for 23 Russian diplomats having been expelled from the UK. As for Skripal and his daughter, the actual victims of the attack, doctors fear that both may have suffered permanent brain damage.


The supposed deal between the Five Star Movement and Italy’s center-right bloc over leadership in both houses of parliament collapsed on Friday when–who else–former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi insisted on pushing a candidate for speaker of the Senate who was unacceptable to Five Star. Berlusconi wants his pal Paolo Romani to fill that office, but Romani’s past conviction for embezzlement makes him a non-starter for Five Star, which above all has portrayed itself as an anti-corruption party. League party boss Matteo Salvini then suggested his party would back another politician from the center-right coalition as Senate speaker, which drew an angry rebuke from Berlusconi that now has the cohesion of the center-right coalition on shaky ground. If that coalition falls apart, Salvini’s bid to be prime minister goes with it and Five Star will be the only party left with any justifiable right to form a government at that point.


A gunman probably inspired by ISIS killed at least three people on Friday in southern France. The attacker reportedly killed one person in a carjacking in the city of Carcassonne before taking hostages in a supermarket in the town of Trèbes, where he killed two more people. He seems to have attempted an attack on a group of police officers in Carcassonne before the hostage incident but failed in that attempt. The gunman himself was then killed by police. There are reports of serious injuries so the death toll may rise. There are also reports that the gunman demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, the ISIS operative who is believed to have been the mastermind behind the November 13 2015 Paris terrorist attack.



Martín Vizcarra is the new president of Peru.

There he is (Wikimedia)

The Peruvian Congress on Friday accepted, by a 105-11 vote, the resignation of former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, elevating Vizcarra to the office. Vizcarra promised in his first address as president to tackle the problem of corruption “head on.”


While presidential challenger Henri Falcón wants to get rid of Venezuela’s hyper-inflated bolívar and replace it with the US dollar, President Nicolás Maduro is proposing to simply pretend the hyperinflation hasn’t happened and redenominate the currency. Maduro proposes just taking three zeros off the end of each bill, so something that now costs 1000 bolívares would instead cost one bolívar. This seems…dubious to me, but I’m not a monetary theorist so what do I know? The thing is, salaries would be redenominated as well, so consumer buying power seems like it would remain the same, and the government is going to keep printing money, which is just going to continue to cause inflation.


There was more good polling news on Friday for Mexican presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The latest Mitofsky poll shows López Obrador with 29.5 percent support, up from 27.1 percent in the same poll last month, while his second place opponent, Ricardo Anaya, lost 1.1 percent of his support to drop to 21.2 percent. Anaya is being slammed by corruption allegations and seems to be declining in polls across the board.


As expected, the appointment of John Bolton as Donald Trump’s new national security adviser is not going over well among US allies:

From Berlin and Jerusalem to Seoul and Tokyo, U.S. allies who have long felt that Trump’s unconventional rhetoric on foreign policy often did not translate to concrete policy are bracing for a shift. Following the nomination last week of the hawkish Mike Pompeo to become secretary of state, Bolton’s elevation means that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is the lone survivor in a ring of advisers who pushed Trump to hew closer to conventional foreign policy positions.


Now, as U.S. policy on North Korea and Iran reaches a crucial juncture in coming weeks, Bolton’s regime-change rhetoric toward both nations may lead to a hardening of policy, allies believe. Europeans, who widely support a 2015 deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, fear its imminent demise. Some Israelis — even those who criticized the pact — are also concerned. And in South Korea and Japan, there are fears that Trump is preparing for war if talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fail to yield breakthroughs.

One exception to this pattern is, of course, Israel, whose right wing government mostly loves Bolton because Bolton never met a Palestinian whose land he didn’t want to seize and turn over to the Israelis.

Finally, I leave you with Stephen Walt’s take on the Bolton appointment. Walt is not optimistic about Bolton, but sees his reemergence as a symptom of a bigger problem, which is the definition of what counts as “mainstream” foreign policy thinking in Washington:

Instead, whether Trump knows it or not, putting Bolton, Pompeo, and Haspel in key positions looks more like a return to “Cheneyism,” by which I mean a foreign policy that inflates threats, dismisses serious diplomacy, thinks allies are mostly a burden, is contemptuous of institutions, believes that the United States is so powerful that it can just issue ultimatums and expect others to cave, and believes that a lot of thorny foreign-policy problems can be solved by just blowing something up.


Boy, that formula really worked well the last time the United States tried it, didn’t it? No wonder a sophisticated foreign-policy expert like Trump wants to try it again.


Thus, the real lesson of the Bolton appointment has less to do with Bolton himself and more about what it says about the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. You’re undoubtedly going to read a lot of heartfelt, knickers-in-a-twist commentaries in the next few weeks about the dangers of appointing a wild-eyed radical to such a sensitive position, but the plain fact is that Bolton is not really an outlier within the U.S. foreign-policy community. It’s not like Trump just appointed Medea Benjamin (from the left) or Rand Paul (from the right) or even an experienced and knowledgeable contrarian such as Charles W. Freeman Jr. or Andrew Bacevich. Instead, he appointed someone with decidedly hawkish views but who is still within the “acceptable” consensus in Washington.

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