World update: May 18 2017

By “world” I mean everything outside the Middle East. Yes, I know the Middle East is part of the “world,” but…hey, you come up with the post titles next time.


What shit hit the fan today, you ask? Well, I don’t want to give anything away, but if I were Michael Flynn and I hadn’t already retained a lawyer, I think that would be my next phone call. Reuters reported this morning that members of the Trump campaign, Flynn prominent among them, had at least 18 (!) contacts with Russian officials during the last seven months of the 2016 campaign. Well then. So far nothing about the contacts seems inappropriate, but they say it’s always the coverup that gets you, and in this case the Trump administration initially denied that the campaign had any contact with the Russians, then it copped to four contacts but insisted that was it. Apparently that wasn’t it. Zero contacts would have been normal. Four contact, also pretty normal. Eighteen contacts, at least? Not really that normal.

The much more problematic story for Flynn, however, is going to be this McClatchy report alleging that, shortly before Trump’s inauguration, he quashed Obama administration plans that were already underway to use the Syrian Democratic Forces as the main American proxy in the fight against ISIS around Raqqa–the plan that the Trump administration is now following, by the by. It’s not clear if Flynn gave a reason for  scuttling the plans, but, well, it doesn’t look good. Turkey, as you know, was, is, and forever will be opposed to any American collaboration with the SDF, because the SDF’s primary fighting component is made up of fighters from the Kurdish YPG militia, which is closely linked to Turkey’s rebel Kurdish PKK. And, well, after Barack Obama fired Flynn as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn made $530,000 working as an agent of the Turkish government–work for which he didn’t register as a foreign agent until March, months after he should have. Did Flynn try to kill the SDF plans because of his relationship with the Turkish government? I mean, one might assume so, right?

Also, too, Flynn was already under investigation for his undeclared work on Ankara’s behalf before he became National Security Advisor–and Trump’s people knew it. They knew about it before Flynn spoke with Susan Rice and told her to put the kibosh on the SDF plan. Yikes.

I think this Matt Yglesias piece makes a good point and makes me realize that I hit the “Trump is non compos mentis” thing a little too hard yesterday. Yglesias argues that Trump isn’t out of his mind, he’s just a wealthy guy who’s used to being able to get away with anything, because we let wealthy guys get away with anything in this country. Undoubtedly this is true, but that doesn’t explain, to me at least, why he blurted out whatever he blurted to Sergey Lavrov last week, and it doesn’t explain some of his other more bizarre behaviors. I don’t think this is an either/or situation–if Trump’s faculties are declining, then his rich asshole personality is going to make it harder for his staff to manage that, and as we’ve seen his staff has really no ability to manage him whatsoever.

OK, now on to the rest of the world–except for the Middle East, as I’ve already explained.


Those two Pakistani diplomats who had been detained in Kabul have now returned to Pakistan. Still no word on why they were detained–Afghan authorities won’t even say they were detained, so…?


Rodrigo Duterte has now made it illegal to smoke in public in the Philippines and has asked the public to “help” enforce the new ban. So if you’re heading to the Philippines and thinking about lighting up a smoke on a sidewalk in Manila, ask yourself if it’s worth getting double-tapped by the president of the Philippines, because I’m pretty sure that’s where this is heading.


Say, you know what the world is missing right now? An international incident between the US and China! And right on cue:

Two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. “sniffer” plane over the East China Sea, two U.S. military officials told NBC News on Thursday.

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft, which “sniffs” the atmosphere for signs of nuclear activity, was conducting a routine mission Wednesday in international airspace over the East China Sea when two Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft intercepted it, the officials said.

The officials wouldn’t say whether the confrontation was considered unsafe, but they said the crew of the U.S. plane described it as “unprofessional.” The U.S. plane was operating in accordance with international law, they said.

Officials said the matter was being addressed with China through “appropriate diplomatic channels.”

This kind of thing happens every once in a while, but frankly I think we could do without even this little bit of extra drama.


A fairly significant battle appears to have taken place today in west-central (or southern, pretty much everything that’s not on the coast is “southern”) Libya, at the Brak al-Shati airbase. The Misrata-based Third Force militia, possibly with assistance from the Benghazi Defense Brigades, attacked the base, which had been in the possession of the Libyan National Army’s 12th Brigade but may no longer be–reports on the outcome of the battle are contradictory, as are reports of casualties (I’ve seen as few as 60 dead to more than double that in the highest counts). The Misratan militias, Third Force chief among them, are the most capable fighting force in Libya outside of the LNA, but their allegiances have shifted between the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord and the rival Tripoli-based National Salvation Government. The GNA is currently trying to maintain a dialogue with LNA commander Khalifa Haftar, and that may be why the Third Force is escalating the fighting.

Haftar, meanwhile, has a new friend in a powerful place. French President Emmanuel Macron apparently likes the cut of Haftar’s dictator-in-training jib, because his government has declared its support for a united Libyan army, under Haftar’s command, to, whatever, fight terrorism or some other boilerplate thing. This Macron, he’s really bringing some bold, fresh thinking to the table, what with the corporate tax cuts and austerity and supporting convenient military strongmen. Western governments have never seen this kind of policymaking before.


The death toll from the recent fighting in Bangassou has risen to 150 and may rise higher still, and 3000 people from the area have apparently fled across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo–where, of course, there’s an Ebola outbreak. So the timing on that is fantastic. Diane Corner, the UN special representative in the CAR, says that the Christian militia that attacked the town did so with mortars and grenade launchers, heavier weaponry than they’ve previously been known to use, which suggests they’ve gotten an influx of money from somewhere.


President Trump would like to see NATO play a bigger role in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but he’s getting pushback from both the German and French governments, in part due to concerns about escalating tensions with Russia. All NATO members have joined the anti-ISIS coalition, but the organization itself has not, despite calls for it to participate in, say, training Iraqi security forces or similar institution-building activities. What might wind up happening is that the organization may formally join the coalition during Trump’s European trip next week, but not actually make any specific commitments to do anything.


Anti-austerity protests are continuing throughout Greece and have turned violent, with police using tear gas on crowds outside the parliament building in Athens and some protesters throwing gasoline bombs at the cops.


President Macron is getting off to a running start:

France’s new president and prime minister have the lowest public confidence levels for French leaders starting their terms in at least the last 20 years, a poll found on Thursday.

Some 45 percent of voters said they trusted in centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s ability to tackle France’s problems, while 36 percent trusted his newly appointed prime minister, Edouard Philippe, a conservative, the Elabe poll showed.

“This result shows an unprecedented situation … there is no grace period for the president,” Elabe said in a note. Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister, said before his election this month that he expected no honeymoon.

It would appear that around a third of Macron’s voters in the runoff voted for him pretty much just to keep Marine Le Pen from becoming president. Which seems about right.


Protests and violence are also continuing in Venezuela, where the death toll after six weeks of clashes is up to 45 and the situation may be approaching the point of full-on civil war. The US Treasury Department today levied sanctions against eight members of the Venezuelan Supreme Court for their role in causing this most recent outbreak of violence when they attempted, in late March, to usurp the functions of the opposition-controlled legislature.

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