Conflict update: March 14 2017

DONALD TRUMP AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.

“MAD DOG” “REASONABLE CLIMATE CHANGE THINKER” MATTIS

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Conflict update: January 9 2017

Apologies; normally I like to keep things more active around here, but I’m working on a big piece for LobeLog and it’s taking a while to get through it. It’s a long Q&A with a couple of respected foreign policy analysts about the Obama foreign policy legacy. And while you might think that sounds easy, you just type up what they said and you’re done, you haven’t ever seen me try to transcribe anything. It’s pretty brutal. So it’ll probably be another day or so before I send that one off to my editor and, in the meantime, as it was today, it might be a little slow on the blog.

Iran

You’ve probably already heard the BREAKING NEWS OMG OMG OMG that an American vessel in the Persian Gulf fired warning shots at a number of small Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “fast attack” craft earlier today. This kind of thing happens periodically. Iran claims waters in the Gulf that are beyond internationally recognized boundaries, much as China does in the South China Sea. The US ignores those claims just as it does in the SCS, because the US considers itself the defender of free maritime lanes all around the world. Occasionally, Iranian boats buzz US ships menacingly in the way that my 15 pound Schnoodle barks at the much larger dog who lives next door, separated from her by a very sturdy chain-link fence. It makes them feel good about themselves but almost never amounts to anything serious. That may change in 11 days, when we inaugurate a president who has vowed to destroy Iranian boats in the Gulf if their crews do so much as flip the bird at American sailors. That would, of course, be insane, but “sane” hopped a flight to Aruba sometime in 2015 and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.

In other Iranian news, parliament voted today to increase military spending to five percent of the Iranian budget and to continue a long-range missile program that is virtually guaranteed to cause conflict with the Trump administration. Iran’s ballistic missile program is often conflated with the nuclear deal, because ballistic missiles are usually conflated with nuclear weapons (medium and long-range ballistic missiles are kind of silly weapons unless they’re carrying a major payload). In fact the program violates, or may violate, other UN sanctions on Iran, but it is not literally at odds with the nuclear deal (even though, as the UN and other JCPOA parties have argued, it may be “inconsistent” with the “spirit” of the deal).

Iran is also still processing yesterday’s passing of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One aspect of his death that I didn’t really note yesterday is that Rafsajani’s death is the first loss of a truly titanic figure in the founding of the Islamic Republic–the only other Iranian on par with Rafsanjani in that regard would be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he’s certainly got more years behind him than in front of him. The two of them were the leaders of the revolutionary generation, the group that did the work of overthrowing the shah in 1979 and seeing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his vilayet-i faqih system installed as Iran’s new political reality. Khomeini was the idol of that generation but he wasn’t of that generation, so his death in 1989 didn’t mark the passing of an era the way Rafsanjani’s does, and Khamenei’s will. It’s one of the great political ironies in the Middle East that countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have huge populations of young people but are still ruled by cadres of people who were elderly a decade ago, and who/what rises to replace them is going to determine a lot about the future of the region.

Iraq

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Today in Irish history: the sack of Baltimore (1631)

We don’t often talk about Irish history around here, but the travels of the Barbary corsairs (who are often treated as simply a Mediterranean phenomenon) can take you to some unexpected places, and I think it’s fun to occasionally point how just how far their reach extended. In this case, it extended all the way north to the southern tip of Ireland, the town of Baltimore in County Cork.

baltimore ireland

Baltimore, Ireland. Also, pay attention to the waters in the Bristol Channel, south of where it says “WALES” on this map. It’ll be important in a minute. (Google Maps)

If we’re going to talk about the sack of Baltimore then we need to say something about the man who perpetrated it, Murad Reis the Younger (d. sometime after 1641), AKA Jan Janszoon van Haarlem. Murad, or Jan, was a Dutch sailor who began a career as a privateer before being captured by Barbary corsairs and “Turning Turk,” which was the almost entirely inaccurate term for European sailors who were captured by Muslim pirates and converted to Islam (either genuinely or out of a desire to improve their lot as future slaves and/or impressed sailors. Janszoon seems to have been a pretty enthusiastic convert. He may have genuinely adopted Islam, or he may have come to the realization that working as a privateer for the Barbary states, which meant he could attack pretty much everybody’s ships, was a lot more lucrative than doing it for Holland, which only allowed its privateers to attack Spanish ships. Maybe both, or neither. Continue reading

So much for resting in peace…

Via io9, it appears that archaeologists in the Irish town of Collooney have a bit of a mystery on their hands, as they examine a human skeleton that was unearthed when a 200 year old birch tree blew over in a storm.

The tree in question, as photographed by archaeologist Marion Dowd

To add injury to insult, the skeleton, which appears to have been buried sometime between the mid-11th century and the early 13th century, was split in half when the tree uprooted, with the upper half going with the tree roots and the lower half staying in the ground. That’s got to be rough on your enjoyment of the afterlife. There’s no indication how the deceased fellow wound up there, though there’s apparently some evidence of a past graveyard in the vicinity. On the other hand, the guy clearly seems to have died violently, so he may have just been left where he fell.

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