World update: September 7 2018



Defense Secretary James Mattis made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday that included meetings with Afghan leaders to discuss the prospects for peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan-Pakistan relationship. We’re 17 years in and the US defense secretary still has to make unannounced visits for security reasons. It’s going great, is what I’m trying to say here.


Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed economist Atif Mian to his Economic Advisory Council last week and on Friday he requested and received the guy’s resignation. Why? Because Mian is an Ahmadi, and Khan’s Islamist base raised a fit at the idea that an Ahmadi might somehow be involved in running the country. So if you were optimistic that Khan would be able to govern independently of his most unhinged conservative supporters, then I’m afraid I have some bad news.


The State Department issued a statement on Thursday promising to “consider appropriate measures” if the Maldivian government doesn’t release its political prisoners and commit to a free and fair presidential election later this month. On Friday, the Maldivian foreign ministry charged the US with committing “an act of intimidation” and denied that it has any political prisoners in custody. Presumably this means sanctions are on the horizon.


The Myanmar government, meanwhile, said on Friday that it will not recognize an International Criminal Court ruling granting itself jurisdiction over allegations related to the attempted genocide of the Rohingya last year. Myanmar isn’t an ICC member state, but the Rohingya were driven by the violence into Bangladesh, which is an ICC member state. Myanmar maintains that it did not drive the Rohingya into Bangladesh and accused the court of “manifest bad faith, procedural irregularities and general lack of transparency” in its ruling. Even if the ICC does have jurisdiction here it can only take action if somebody deigns to bring relevant Myanmar officials to The Hague for trial, which is unlikely to happen.


Donald Trump told reporters on Friday that he’s ready to slap tariffs on another $267 billion in imports from China “on short notice,” in addition to the $250 billion that he’s already levied tariffs against. That includes pretty much everything else China exports to the US. If Trump goes ahead with this–and it’s likely he will, as his base loves it and he’s getting little pushback in Washington–it will be interesting to see what China does in response, since it’s nearly run out of US goods to tax.


You can probably expect some noise about tariffs on Japanese imports soon, since Trump also told reporters that Washington and Tokyo are beginning trade talks.



People who have lived through other failed ceasefire attempts in Tripoli over the past few years don’t seem to be terribly optimistic that the UN-negotiated ceasefire that militias reached on Tuesday is going to hold up. Why? Well, because apparently the militias are still parking their heavy weaponry in the city. Probably not a good sign. The UN is talking about punishing any group that violates the ceasefire but it’s not clear what “punishment” would constitute in this situation. There seems to be a concern that eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar might use the chaos caused by all the inter-militia fighting to move his own forces into the city and stake his claim to Libya’s pre-war capital.


Ethiopian police have determined that Simegnew Bekele, the former chief engineer on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, took his own life. Simegnew was found dead in his car in Addis Ababa in July, and because the GERD project has caused so much regional tension (with Egypt) there was justifiable reason to wonder if he’d been the victim of foul play. They may continue to wonder that, even though apparently his fingerprints were on the gun and his car was locked.


Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and current Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa are friends again, apparently, even though Mnangagwa helped orchestrate the coup that removed Mugabe from power last year. Or at least Mugabe now recognizes Mnangagwa as the country’s legitimate president. So that’s nice.



Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi were supposed to meet for European Union-organized talks in Brussels on Friday, presumably to discuss that land swap idea that’s been kicking around Europe for the past few weeks. But in a step backward for Balkan good feelings, Vučić at the last minute refused to meet with Thaçi and said he would only talk to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Supposedly Vučić was angry that the Kosovar government had canceled part of his itinerary for a trip he was scheduled to take to Kosovo this weekend, though the Kosovar government denies that. Needless to say if the land swap plan does come to fruition, it’s unlikely to be any time soon.


Polling ahead of Sunday’s election shows Sweden’s center-left coalition with a one point lead over its center-right coalition but short of a majority in parliament. The hard right/xenophobic Sweden Democrats are polling at around 19 percent and could come out of the election as the largest single party in Sweden. The upshot is that some kind of peculiar and probably very unwieldy governing alliance is going to be needed as a result of this vote.


The State Department late Friday announced that it’s recalled its ambassador to the Dominican Republic, its ambassador to El Salvador, and its charge d’affaires in Panama for consultations over those countries’ recent decisions to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize China instead. Some sort of sanctions or diplomatic downgrade could be in the cards here.


There are fears that the stabbing of far right presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday could throw Brazil’s presidential race into even further chaos. Certainly if Bolsonaro, who reportedly lost 40 percent of his blood as a result of the attack, is incapacitated, that will be true. But assuming Bolsonaro recovers, and at this point it seems like he will, chances are he’s going to get a political boost from this incident. If nothing else, he’s getting a lot of free media, which matters because Bolsonaro is only allotted a pittance of TV commercial time since he’s not a major party nominee. It’s also now going to be difficult, if not impossible, for Bolsonaro’s opponents to target him with negative advertising, at least for a couple of weeks, and with the vote approaching in October that’s a long time.


Friday saw new anti-Daniel Ortega action in Nicaragua:

Shops, banks and businesses across Nicaragua stayed closed on Friday in the latest 24-hour strike called by opposition leaders since protests against the government of Daniel Ortega broke out in April.

In the Centro Comercial, an upscale shopping center in downtown Managua, the usually bustling avenues were empty, save for the watchmen outside shuttered storefronts and a short line of men waiting to use the ATM outside a closed bank.

Friday’s strike was called by the opposition Civic Alliance to demand the release of activists including student leaders Edwin Carcache and Alejandro Centeno, who were imprisoned this week on charges of terrorism.


Donald Trump is apparently going to cause the ruination of Canada now for some reason:

Trump began discussing Canada on his way to a Republican fundraising event in North Dakota. He told reporters on Air Force One: “Canada has been ripping us off for a long time. Now, they’ve got to treat us fairly.”

“I don’t want to do anything bad to Canada. I can — all I have to do is tax their cars, it would be devastating. If I tax cars coming in from Canada, it would be devastating,” he continued, according to a pool reporter travelling with him.

“Actually, on some countries, including Canada, a tax on cars would be the ruination of the country,” he said. “That’s how big it is. It’d be the ruination of the country. Now, they’ve taken advantage of us for many decades. We can’t let this happen anymore. We have a country to run.”

Without indulging this crap too much, maybe somebody should ask Trump what he thinks a “ruined” Canada would do to the US economy.


Finally, as Trump brags to Jewish leaders about his record in the Middle East, LobeLog’s Jim Lobe wonders if Trump’s domestic travails might be pushing us all toward a war with Iran:

Let’s assume for a minute—and it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption under the circumstances—that President Trump’s political problems and popularity only get worse over the next months, both before and after the elections. What with anonymous “senior officials,” new revelations from “crazytown” provoked by Bob Woodward’s latest book, new indictments and/or plea bargains flowing out of the Mueller investigation, let alone little to no likelihood of a real breakthrough on North Korea or anywhere else., it’s difficult to see how Trump’s and the GOP’s current downward trajectory will be easily reversed.

So, faced with these prospects, what might a politically beleaguered president do to rally the public behind him or stave off the worst? Of course, it’s a cliché that leaders in trouble, both authoritarian and democratically elected, are often tempted to invent or exploit or manipulate a foreign crisis—including even war—against a convenient “enemy” in order to at least distract attention, if not reverse their fortunes. History is replete with examples.

Would Trump be so tempted?

Judging from all we have learned about him, you bet.

And what “enemy” would likely be the target?

Again, judging from all we know, Iran must rank at the top.

And how can we be so certain?

Because of Trump’s tweets when he thought that President Obama found himself in political trouble or on the defensive.


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