World update: October 25 2018

ASIA

ARMENIA

US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Armenia on Thursday and blamed Russian arms sales for exacerbating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. Moscow is the main weapons supplier to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Lest you think this was some high-minded and wholly out of character exercise in pacifism, Bolton also added a sales pitch for US weapons and said the Trump administration would reconsider an existing US ban on arms sales to both countries.

PAKISTAN

Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban killed a police officer in a drive by shooting on Thursday in Quetta. Also Thursday, in the Washk district several well to Quetta’s south, fighters with the Baluchistan Liberation Army, working with the Baluch Liberation Front, attacked a Pakistani paramilitary convoy and killed at least two soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani economy is doing so well that the government is now holding telethons to pay for infrastructure projects:

The financially strapped Pakistani state is running a crowdsourcing-style campaign in a last-ditch effort to secure $14 billion to build two dams, which officials say will solve the country’s endemic shortages of water and electricity. It has become the cause du jour for Pakistanis both at home and abroad.

Television news shows regularly feature the day’s biggest donors handing over their paychecks en masse, including the national soccer team, Pakistani politicians, government employees and members of the military.

Radio ads across the country implore average citizens to donate even 10 rupees (less than 10 cents) over the phone. Pakistani celebrities have announced their own hefty donations on social media and made fund-raising appeals to their fans.

CHINA

Georgetown Professor David Edelstein wonders whether US-China great power competition is the new normal:

If President Xi Jinping and President Trump meet at next month’s G-20 summit, the two may be discussing a long list of issues. Earlier this month, Vice President Pence made clear the Trump administration’s growing concern with China’s moves “to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” The vice president’s speech echoed sections of the December 2017 National Security Strategy, which explicitly anticipated a new era of great power competition.

Other recent developments, from trade tensions to naval maneuvers in the South China Sea to allegations of Chinese hacking and industrial espionage, have provoked questions about the present and future of U.S.-China relations. Has the relationship turned irretrievably in a more competitive direction?

AFRICA

SUDAN

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Khartoum on Thursday, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir celebrated the occasion by lifting a ban he instituted last year on the importation of Egyptian agricultural goods. Egypt and Sudan have had rocky relations in recent years over a border dispute as well as accusations that Cairo has supported Sudanese rebels.

SOUTH SUDAN

The South Sudanese government reportedly released five of its rebel prisoners on Thursday. The peace deal that the government and rebels recently signed calls for a major prisoner release, but it’s unclear if this release was part of that process or just an isolated event. The government said earlier this month that it’s already released all of its political prisoners, which is true only insofar as the definition of “political prisoner” is subjective.

ETHIOPIA

The Ethiopian parliament elected Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s new president on Thursday, making her the first woman president in the country’s history. The Ethiopian presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, but Sahle-Work’s election is an important symbolic step, building on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s new cabinet, half of whose members are women.

SOMALIA

According to the African Union, a leading financial officer for al-Shabab was killed on Monday when the AU’s Somali peacekeeping force ambushed a group of al-Shabab fighters in the southern town of Bariire.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Jeffrey Lewis concludes that the Trump administration, with John Bolton leading the way, decided to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty mostly as a “fuck you” to the very concept of international governance:

The problem with looking for a reason for Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty is that Bolton, at a fundamental level, would object to needing a reason. After all, needing a reason would seem to imply that there might be some case where the United States would willingly accept some international treaty or agreement that limited the exercise of its sovereignty. Bolton rejects that possibility outright, with almost every treaty an affront to American exceptionalism. “Every time America is forced to bend its knee to international pressure,” Bolton wrote, “it sets a significant, and detrimental, precedent for all of the others.” As an example of this, Bolton cites the death penalty, which he lauds as a “textbook demonstration of popular sovereignty at work” and a result that “enrages the Globalists.”

That said, there are unquestionably some problems with the treaty, mostly around Russia’s non-compliance and the fact that China isn’t party to it. Kori Schake (who opposed the decision) lays out the case for withdrawal but concludes that the administration has butchered the execution:

At a minimum, it would have behooved the administration to bring a little creativity to the problem. It might have tried to negotiate an exemption for conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, coupled with increased verification measures to check which were nuclear versus conventional. It might have circumscribed the INF treaty geographically to Europe.

The administration could also have reduced the political costs of withdrawing from the treaty if it had tried to persuade the Chinese to dismantle their ground missiles. It’s exceedingly unlikely that the Chinese would have agreed to trade away one of their few competitive operational advantages, but just making the effort would have pleased the international community.

SPAIN

Polling indicates that Spain’s Socialist Party is in the political driver’s seat, with 31.6 percent support compared with only 18.2 percent for Spain’s former ruling People’s Party. A relatively new center-right party called Ciudadanos is in second place with 21 percent support. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is leading a minority government with only 84 seats in the 250 seat parliament, but he insists that he does not want to call for an early election (Spain’s next election is scheduled for 2020). This polling could give him more pull with swing legislators to support his agenda.

FRANCE

President Jupiter has decided to close the press room in Elysee Palace, a step that French journalists have heavily criticized and that arguably puts him further along on the authoritarianism scale than many of the world leaders he’s chided for their authoritarianism, including Donald Trump. Macron blames the French media for the fact that his approval rating is now below 30 percent, because of course his own pro-rich, anti-everybody else policies and ridiculous narcissism couldn’t possibly be turning people off to his majesty on their own.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

The BBC has put together a typology of Jair Bolsonaro voters, who it says belong to at least one of these categories: people who are worried about crime, people who have Workers’ Party fatigue, businesspeople, agribusinesspeople, and evangelical Christians.

MEXICO

Mexican citizens have reportedly tried to be as welcoming to the Central American migrant caravan as possible, but Mexican authorities have not. The hardships of the journey, compounded by interference from Mexican police, have begun to severely whittle away at the caravan’s numbers:

The caravan is still some 1,000 miles from the nearest border crossing at McAllen, Texas, but the journey could be twice that if the migrants head to the Tijuana-San Diego crossing, the destination of a smaller caravan earlier this year. Only about 200 in that group ever made it.

This one has begun to thin, with authorities saying 1,740 have applied for refuge in Mexico and hundreds more have taken up offers of bus rides back to Honduras. Sickness, exhaustion and police harassment have also helped whittle down their numbers.

Mexico’s federal government hasn’t given the migrants on the road a single meal, bathroom or bottle of water, reserving any aid only for those who turn themselves in to apply for visas or be deported.

Immigration officials appeared to be intervening more aggressively with the migrants’ movements amid the sweltering 90-degree heat.

In the US, meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis is probably about to give in to the fact-free delusions of Donald Trump and every other sundowning Fox News fanatic in the country and send active duty US soldiers to the border to…sit there, I guess, for a month or so until the couple of hundred real diehards from this caravan actually make it to the US border to apply for asylum. Which is completely legal, by the way. We’ll need the soldiers to protect us from all the ISIS-Hezbollah-drug cartel special forces operators who even Trump acknowledges aren’t in the caravan because they don’t exist.

The next escalation in this game of entirely political fear-mongering is for our president to order his soldiers to gun a group of migrants down in cold blood right there at the border. And don’t tell me we’re not going to get there eventually. The only thing that might save this group is that they’ll arrive at the border too late for their massacre to impact the midterms.

UNITED STATES

The Daily Beast is reporting that disgraced ex-Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn met with disgraced former Saudi spy Ahmed Al-Assiri during the transition period after the 2016 election to discuss engineering regime change in Iran. While of course this was wholly inappropriate it doesn’t really matter much now, I guess, except to illustrate that regime change has been this administration’s goal from day one–actually before that, apparently–despite their rhetoric to the contrary. But I’d like to know if there’s literally any sleazy meeting Mike Flynn has ever been offered that he wouldn’t take.

Finally, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports, probably to nobody’s surprise, that John Bolton has been engineering a behind the scenes effort to dump Mattis:

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton and his deputy are trying to squeeze out U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis by spreading rumors about his imminent departure, according to two well-placed sources.

Bolton and Mira Ricardel, the deputy national security advisor, who has repeatedly clashed with Mattis over Defense Department personnel appointments, believe the defense secretary is “not ideologically aligned” with President Donald Trump’s administration, according to one of the sources, a former senior defense official. The two are trying “to build the sense that he is done for,” the former official said.

“They have the knives out.”

One Trump administration official noted, “Mira and Bolton are the only ones who benefit if Secretary Mattis leaves.” The secretary is “highly regarded” within the cabinet and by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the official said.

It is, frankly, a sign of how bad things are that James Mattis is viewed as a reassuring voice of restraint in this administration, and yet here we are. His departure, which is probably inevitable at this point, will not be good news for anybody because it will elevate Bolton that much more.

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