World update: February 13 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban says it will hold another round of peace talks with US representatives in Islamabad on February 18. The US, uh, says it doesn’t know anything about it. That’s a little weird. Assuming the meeting does happen it’s interesting that it will be happening in Pakistan and not at the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar. The US has of course been on Pakistan to use its leverage over the Taliban to spur negotiations, and there have been signs recently that the Pakistanis were doing so. Hosting negotiations would increase Pakistan’s role further.

SOUTH KOREA

Donald Trump seems to be under the impression that South Korea has agreed to pay vastly more for having US forces stationed there than it has actually agreed to pay. The new, one year agreement covering the presence of US forces in South Korea has Seoul paying around $925 million for the privilege for 2019, which is $70 million more than it paid to the US last year. So uhhhhhhhh:

“They agreed to pay, yesterday, $500 million more toward their defense. Five-hundred million, with a couple of phone calls,” Mr. Trump said during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, adding that the increase came at his request. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you do this before?’ They said, ‘Nobody asked.’ So — it’s got to go up. It’s got to go up.”

Mr. Trump also said he would continue to press South Korea to increase its contribution in the coming years.

“And over the years, it will start going up, and they will be terrific,” he said.

He also apparently said that South Korea had been paying $500 million/year previously, which it wasn’t, and that said $500 million was only 10 percent of the cost of keeping US forces in South Korea. According to the South Koreans, the $855 million they paid last year was about half of the cost of the deployment.

AFRICA

LIBYA

US and Libyan forces undertook a joint raid on Wednesday against a suspected al-Qaeda facility in the southern Libyan city of Ubara. Neither the internationally recognized Libyan government nor US Africa Command offered any further details.

NIGERIA

ISIS-West Africa on Wednesday attacked a convoy carrying the governor of Borno state to a campaign rally, killing at least three people and likely more. ISIS is claiming 42 killed though it tends to exaggerate these things. Official counts have variously put the figure at anywhere between three and ten killed.

Nigeria’s upcoming presidential election, widely viewed as a contest between incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and main challenger Atiku Abubakar, is in part becoming a referendum on changing Nigeria’s federal power structure:

Atiku has described Nigeria’s current political system as “unworkable” and has advocated “devolution of powers and resources to states and local governments” and greater autonomy for states. To combat the insecurity that has led to the military being deployed in at least 32 of Nigeria’s 36 states, he also supports allowing Nigeria’s states to form their own police forces to reinforce Nigeria’s currently federally-controlled military and police forces. Buhari is a conservative and has rejected a political restructuring of Nigeria.

Such proposals will reverberate at both ends of Nigeria. The issue of restructuring Nigeria’s unusual federal system has been a big talking point for the last three decades. However, regional autonomy is a potentially explosive issue in a country that fought a civil war from 1967 to 1970 and sacrificed over 1 million of its citizens to prevent one of its southern regions from seceding, and in which just three of the country’s 36 states today produce 75 percent of the country’s oil and over 50 percent of government revenues.

EUROPE

POLAND

With US officials in Poland to host their big Middle East conference on Wednesday, it was a convenient time to also do a little diplomacy with the Polish government. For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US is still considering Warsaw’s request to increase the US troop presence in Poland, which is currently around 4500 give or take. The Polish government is concerned about Russia and has been agitating for an increase for months now. It’s even offered to build the US a military base to the tune of $2 billion.

The US is more concerned with China than Russia, and Vice President Mike Pence continued the Trump administration’s program of negging Central and Eastern European countries into reducing their business with Beijing:

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised Poland on Wednesday for its commitment to “protecting the telecoms sector from China”, as part of a concerted push by the United States to convince its allies to exclude tech giant Huawei from telecoms projects.

Fueled by concerns that Huawei products could be used by China for espionage, Pence and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have stressed the dangers of collaborating with the Chinese firm during appearances in Poland and central European neighbors this week.

Huawei has repeatedly denied that its products could be used for espionage.

“We must continue to work so that all investment review mechanisms protect critical security and economic infrastructure going forward,” Pence said during a joint press conference in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

FRANCE

Several French unions announced on Wednesday that they will strike on February 19. The strike and related protests will revolve around opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity agenda, in particular his pension and welfare cuts, as well as calls for higher wages.

SPAIN

As expected, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez lost Wednesday’s parliamentary vote on his 2019 budget. Sánchez, who leads a very precarious minority government, will likely now call for an early election, probably in April. That election is likely to be indecisive and kick off weeks if not months of haggling to form a new government. Sánchez’s Socialist Party leads in polls but not by much and not nearly enough to form a government on its own. Spain’s three main right-wing parties, including the fringe right Vox that is surging in the polls, may collectively win a majority, but there are major questions about whether they could work together in a coalition.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Juan Guaidó’s declaration that he plans to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela on February 23 whether Nicolás Maduro likes it or not has certainly made that day a crucial one in Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis. But it also points to the fact that, in keeping the aid out of the country thus far, Maduro has already taken a fair amount of wind out of Guaidó’s sails, blunting the momentum that was fueling Guaidó’s challenge to Maduro’s rule. Things are now in a temporary stalemate, and what happens on February 23 could be decisive–if Guaidó can’t get the aid into the country as promised, his support among Venezuelans who are counting on that aid will likely plummet.

Maduro still controls the Venezuelan military, which is one of the keys to his remaining in power, and he’s clearly feeling pretty good about his chances. Or at least he’s putting on a good public show, talking about how his enemies have “failed totally” to oust him and talking about Guaidó eventually facing charges in court. But the opposition made a move to secure Venezuela’s oil revenue for itself on Wednesday, appointing new boards for both the state-owned oil company PDVSA and for its US subsidiary, Citgo. Naming a new PDVSA board is perfunctory, since Maduro still controls the company. But the Trump administration may actually try to install the new opposition board at Citgo.

EL SALVADOR

US National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly spoke with Salvadoran President-elect Nayib Bukele by phone on Wednesday and warned him about China’s “predatory” behavior. El Salvador switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China last year, but Bukele has said he’d be open to reviewing the country’s China policy. He also promised to be “a friend” to the United States–the Donald Trump-led United States–so already he seems nice.

HAITI

Al Jazeera reports on Haiti’s increasingly violent crackdown against anti-government protesters:

UNITED STATES

Finally, I want to highlight a small part of this otherwise unremarkable piece from Ilan Goldenberg and Eric Brewer in Foreign Policy on Tuesday, because it’s illustrative of many of the things that are wrong with the US foreign policy establishment. Goldenberg and Brewer have been strongly supportive of the Iran nuclear deal and want the next US president to reenter it–but with a catch:

The nuclear deal was an international agreement, reached with European allies, China, and Russia, and endorsed by the U.N. If, under a new administration, the United States wants to reassume its mantle as a global leader that upholds its international commitments, reentering the agreement is essential.

But the more complicated question is how the United States should re-enter. As tempting as it might be for a new president, it would be a mistake to simply return to the agreement as it was. Rather, a future president should use the leverage gained from Trump’s exit—however much they might disagree with that decision—to come to some preliminary understandings with Iran on the many issues of contention that remain in the relationship and on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. The message to Iran and the world should be: We absolutely expect to rejoin the agreement, but first, we need to talk.

Apologies for working blue here, but why in the ever loving fuck would Iran, after having trusted the United States once and gotten thoroughly screwed because of it, agree to something like this? And where in the hell would the United States find the balls to thoroughly violate an international agreement and then demand cookies for agreeing to un-violate it? If the US were allowed to return to the nuclear accord with its terms unchanged, it should consider itself extraordinarily fortunate. How could anybody even imagine that anything like the scenario Goldenberg and Brewer suggest is possible?

The answer is that the US foreign policy establishment, on both sides of the aisle, is still dominated by people who don’t really believe that the rest of the world has any agency. Only the United States, as The World’s Only Superpower™, has the capacity to really act and everybody else is forced to react. Is it unfair for the US to break an agreement and then expect to be rewarded for returning to it? Maybe, but who cares? We’re the almighty United States of America and we can do whatever the hell we want.

That this isn’t true–that we have years of empirical evidence proving that it isn’t true–doesn’t matter. It’s core dogma in The Blob, and it’s not going anywhere.

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