Americas/Europe update: May 19-21 2017


So today was Donald Trump’s big speech on Islam in Riyadh, and much to my disappointment he seems to have stuck to reading a pretty banal foreign policy speech from the teleprompter rather than winging it and offending hundreds of millions of people. Yes, there were offensive things in there, as Juan Cole points out:

Trump managed to insult Islamic civilization by implying that the pre-Islamic civilizations in the region were better:

“Egypt was a thriving center of learning and achievement thousands of years before other parts of the world. The wonders of Giza, Luxor and Alexandria are proud monuments to that ancient heritage.
All over the world, people dream of walking through the ruins of Petra in Jordan. Iraq was the cradle of civilization and is a land of natural beauty.”

This is sheer Orientalism, an allegation that Pharaonic Egypt, Nabatean Jordan and Sumerian and Babylonian Iraq were great civilizations but that once Islam came, they went downhill. Miller-Trump do not know about al-Azhar University in Egypt being among the oldest in the world (George Makdisi argued it was *the* oldest). They don’t know about Harun al-Rashid’s House of Wisdom where Greek philosophy was debated in Arabic by the Abbasid caliph and his court sages at a time when Charlemagne was trying to learn to scratch out his name. They don’t know about the Abbasid invention of algebra or of Omar Khayyam’s use of geometry to solve algebraic equations. The only compliment they give Islamic civilization is that Dubai and Riyadh have skyscrapers, which is surely the blind spot of a Realtor.

But I suspect those will be ignored because Trump and his team hammered the main point their Saudi hosts wanted them to hit: Iran is the root of all evil. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took the occasion of Hassan Rouhani’s reelection to scold Iran for its human rights record and support for terrorism…while giving a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which has a horrific human rights record and is the world’s largest supporter of extremist Islamic terrorism. Trump’s speech praised the Saudis and bashed Iran at length while, at various points during his visit, he assured the autocratic rulers of other Gulf countries that his administration won’t be nagging them about their rampant human rights abuses. He spoke on the need to counter extremism while in a room full of repressive tyrants like the Gulf royals and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose brutality (and, in the case of the Gulf royals, direct financial support) helps to create more extremism.

In other words, it was par for the course for American foreign policy, if a bit more ineptly delivered. Of course, then this happened:

This bizarre occult ritual signaled the opening of the brand-new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, a new Saudi initiative to pretend as though they’re doing something to counter Salafi terrorism. The people working at the GCCEI (?) are tasked with monitoring extremism online and countering its messages. Which is bullshit. You’ll know the Saudis are committed to countering extremism when they stop building Wahhabi mosques all over the world and condemn the takfiri ideology that paved the road for the formation of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Until then, it’s all for show. But that’s all today was about, a big show designed to make Donald Trump look serious and Saudi Arabia look like part of the solution when it’s never been anything but a massive part of the problem.

The major tangible accomplishment of Trump’s Saudi visit is the big new arms deal he signed, the one that will quickly sell $110 billion in advanced killing gear to Riyadh as part of a larger $350 billion package of economic and military–but mostly military–transactions between the US and the Saudis over the next decade. The Saudis will immediately put these weapons to good use fighting terrorism making the world a safer place rebombing all the parts of Yemen they’ve already thoroughly bombed, just for good measure.


Trump is happy to be caressing glowing balls in Riyadh because the alternative would be facing more question in DC about his bizarre dealings with Russia. Apparently, during his now-infamous meeting with Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office a couple of weeks ago, Trump had some remarkable things to say about ex-FBI Director James Comey:

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

To be fair to Trump, “I’m not under investigation” is a thing that people who aren’t under investigation often blurt out several times a day, just to make sure everybody knows they’re not under investigation. I actually introduce myself to people that way. “Hi, nice to meet you, I’m not under investigation.” It’s important to establish these sorts of things upfront, especially in high stakes international wheelings and dealings.


Reuters reported on Friday that Vladimir Putin’s ex-wife Lyudmila may be the head of a foundation that’s taking in millions of dollars from its ownership of a historic property in Moscow, an arrangement that likely had something to do with her status as the first lady of Russia before her 2013 divorce:

The rent comes from Volkonsky House in central Moscow, which was an aristocrat’s home in pre-Soviet times and is now owned by The Centre for the Development of Inter-personal Communications (CDIC). Lyudmila Putina helped set up the non-commercial foundation, according to a report in state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta and two sources who worked with the center. Lyudmila was Putin’s wife from 1983 until their divorce, which was announced in 2013.

The foundation was created in 2002, and in September 2006 Rossiiskaya Gazeta described Lyudmila as a “trustee” of the organization. In an interview with the newspaper that year, she used the term “we” when discussing the foundation, and three sources currently familiar with the foundation’s work said Lyudmila supports a literary prize and publishing arm that the foundation runs.

One assumes that her foundation helped cushion the blow when Vlad decided to divorce her.


Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met in Germany on Saturday and resolved to get the Minsk peace process for eastern Ukraine back on track. Recent ceasefire violations are once again raising the possibility of a return to full-on war.


Austerity Now, Austerity Forever:

Politicians in Greece have approved more pension cuts and tax hikes sought by international lenders to unlock another bailout, as angry demonstrators protested outside parliament against the new round of austerity.

The measures, which entail $5.4bn in cuts to be implemented in 2019 and 2020, were backed late on Thursday by all 153 members of parliament in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ ruling coalition after a fiery debate.

All opposition MPs present in the 300-seat chamber voted against the unpopular package, which caused tens of thousands of anti-austerity protesters to take to the streets  on Wednesday.

The Greek government is hoping these cuts will be enough to ensure its creditors release a new €7.5 billion bailout payment. And then Greece can do this again the next time it needs a bailout payment, which it will, because you can’t cut your way to economic prosperity. Lather, rinse, repeat.


On Friday, Czech President Miloš Zeman agreed to accept compromise pick Ivan Pilny as the country’s new finance minister. Zeman’s assent was the last obstacle to Pliny’s accession, and so Czech politics seem like they’re going to return to normal, for now.


Something interesting may be happening in the run up to next month’s snap elections–specifically, the more people learn about Theresa May’s plans to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted, the less they feel like voting for her and the Tories:

On Thursday May launched pledges for the government to adopt a more interventionist stance in an attempt to attract traditional Labour supporters.

She also set out plans to transfer a greater share of the cost of caring for elderly people from taxpayers to those who can afford to pay for their own care, including property owners who are the basis of support for her party, and to restrict a currently universal winter fuel payment for older people.

YouGov found that 40 percent of the public were opposed to the policy changes for the elderly, while 35 percent were supportive, the Sunday Times said.

It’s funny how people like conservatives right up until they learn what the conservatives want to do in office.


There’s a mounting political scandal in Brazil, where President Michel Temer is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes and then attempting to obstruct the investigation into his activities. There’s also an investigation into the 2014 presidential campaign and charges that Temer (who was running for reelection as vice president) and President Dilma Rousseff (who was impeached last year) took illegal campaign donations. Either of these investigations could lead to Temer’s removal from office via impeachment or nullification of the 2014 election, which is apparently a thing they can do in Brazil. Temer’s position is increasingly untenable and there are growing calls for him to resign rather than put the country through another lengthy impeachment process just a year after the last one, but so far he’s resisted those calls.

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