World update: November 7 2018

Happy Diwali to those who are celebrating!



Asia Bibi, whose 2010 blasphemy conviction was tossed out in court last week, has reportedly been released from prison. Which may not be great news for her, given that she and her family have almost certainly become targets for Islamist extremists. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has been pleading for international asylum, but so far no country has stepped forward to offer protection. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has barred her from leaving the country anyway, in what his critics are calling a capitulation to extremists.


Russia has asked for a United Nations Security Council meeting on Thursday to discuss sanctions on North Korea. The Russian and Chinese governments have both argued that the council should ease those sanctions to reward Pyongyang for the progress it’s made on denuclearization, but it’s unclear exactly why Russia wants to discuss the issue this week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was supposed to have a meeting with North Korean representatives in New York this week but that meeting has been postponed with no reason given–that postponement may be behind Russia’s move at the council. Nevertheless, Donald Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he expects to hold another summit with Kim Jong-un “sometime early next year.”



According to Reuters, Western leaders who have been pushing hard to hold a national election in Libya by the end of this year have finally realized that it’s not happening. UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame is supposed to brief the Security Council on Thursday about a new plan focusing first on ending the interminable cycle of fighting between rival militias and strengthening the Libyan economy first, with an eye toward convening a national conference next year and organizing elections after that.


Islamic Movement of Nigeria leader Ibrahim Zakzaky has been denied bail, following protests last week in Abuja in which Nigerian forces killed more than 40 IMN members. Zakzaky has been in government custody since 2015 without being charged with anything. Alex Thurston has tried to piece together the organization’s leadership apart from Zakzaky, which is hard to do because Zakzaky remains by far the dominant figure within the group. The IMN is Nigeria’s largest Shiʿa organization, which admittedly isn’t saying much since the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims are Sunni.


The Tanzianian government has detained journalists Angela Quintal and Muthoki Mumo, who are both in the country on a “fact-finding mission” for the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s offered no indication as to why it has done so. Somebody using Quintal’s Twitter account tweeted late Wednesday night that the two had been released, but it’s pretty clear at this point that they haven’t been and that it probably wasn’t Quintal who sent that tweet.


Most or possibly all of the school children who were kidnapped from Bamenda several days ago have been released–78 of them, to be precise–along with a driver who was taken along with them. However, the principal and one teacher from their Presbyterian Secondary School are still being held captive. It’s still unclear who’s behind the kidnapping, and because authorities don’t know precisely how many kids were taken (78? 79? 80?) they can’t be sure that all of them have been released.



Hey, you know how the US is arming the Ukrainian government? And the Ukrainian government has some uncomfortable relationships with far-right paramilitary groups like the Azov Battalion? While means the US might be sending weapons to Kiev that wind up in the hands of far-right paramilitaries? Well the good news is those guys are returning the favor by training far-right paramilitary groups back here in the US:

FBI Special Agent Scott Bierwirth, in the criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday, noted that Right Brand Clothing’s Instagram page contained a photo of RAM members meeting with Olena Semenyaka, a leading figure within the fascist, neo-Nazi scene in Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, Semenyaka is an important voice within the Militant Zone and National Corps organizations and the Pan-European Reconquista movement, all of which have ties to the notorious Azov Battalion.

Bierwirth said Azov Battalion, now a piece of the Ukrainian National Guard, is known for neo-Nazi symbolism and ideology and has participated in training and radicalizing U.S.-based white supremacist organizations.

See? No good deed goes unrewarded.


Although she’s announced it’s her last term as chancellor, Angela Merkel is hoping to stick around through Germany’s next federal election in 2021. But according to a new poll, it turns out that most Germans–62 percent of them–would appreciate it if she quit now. That’s awkward.


French President Emmanuel Macron says he wants to create a “true European army” that can defend the continent from threats by China, Russia, and, uh, the US. Macron was perhaps being a little hyperbolic, but there’s no question that Donald Trump has European leaders thinking about how to wean themselves off of reliance on the US for their defense.

Of course, Macron may not be the best messenger for the “European army” cause. He’s planning to honor Marshal Philippe Pétain over the weekend alongside several other French marshals who fought in World War I. The problem of course isn’t Pétain’s service during World War I, it’s the fact that he collaborated with the Nazis in World War II as the prime minister of Vichy France. Probably not a guy anybody should be honoring, for anything. Macron however argued on Wednesday that it’s “entirely legitimate” to do so. OK buddy, whatever you say.



University of São Paulo fellow Ryan Lloyd lays out three scenarios for Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, none of which sound great. If Bolsonaro fails, the Brazilian economy tanks and he risks impeachment, which means more political dysfunction. If he succeeds, that probably means a slide toward authoritarianism. The third possibility, which Lloyd seems to think is more likely than the others, is the Bolsonaro will just sort of muddle through:

Despite Bolsonaro’s authoritarian style and anti-system discourse, he could be less combative than many observers fear. Like every other president since re-democratization, he could become co-opted by the system, distributing federal money and pork to pass laws through Congress but without being able to intimidate legislators with his support among the public and military. This would guarantee some legislative success but could eat away at his support.

It could also be that Brazil steers clear of economic crisis but continues to see an underwhelming economic recovery. Long-term structural problems such as pension reform would probably go unaddressed. This scenario would see Bolsonaro lose part of his anti-PT support but keep his hardcore supporters on board. In this case, he very well could become a “Trump of the tropics” — largely ineffective, extremely polarizing and with an outside chance at reelection in 2022.


The Colombian government on Wednesday said it has formally protested another Venezuelan military incursion on its territory over the weekend. The Venezuelan military is engaged in a border conflict with Colombian paramilitaries and has repeatedly crossed into Colombian territory as part of that conflict.


With the midterms over and Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, there were a fair number of takes already on Wednesday about what that might mean for the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Can the Democrats force Trump to change the way he’s doing business around the world?


The simple answer is “not really”–Congress has ceded a lot of ground on foreign policy to the presidency over the past few decades and it’s unlikely that the 2019 class of House Democrats is the one that’s going to change all of that. The more complicated answer is “it depends on what they want to do.” They could pass tougher sanctions on Russia and probably get somewhere. They could take a War Powers vote on Yemen and then watch that bill die in the Senate. They could push for a reevaluation of the US-Saudi relationship and watch that get quashed either in the Senate or at the White House.

The real power the Democrats will have is in terms of the oversight offered by House committees, where they can hold hearings on, say, the Pentagon’s casualty-heavy conduct of the air campaign against ISIS, or funding decisions at the State Department. So that’s something, I guess.

The downside here, and it’s pretty considerable, is that with his domestic agenda likely stymied for at least the next two years and House Democrats looking for scandals wherever they might be able to find them, Trump could look to foreign policy as the place to make his mark and distract the public:

The stage is thus set for some sort of attention-getting, White House-initiated confrontation, or crisis abroad. Although the whole world is a stage on which such a drama can be produced, confrontation with Iran is the likeliest place where drama will appear. The administration’s single-minded campaign of stoking hostility and tension with Iran already has created the necessary atmosphere. Although Trump probably would like eventually to reach some kind of deal with Tehran that he would claim, regardless of its contents, as better than what previous administrations had reached, such a denouement to the administration’s current course is, as Barbara Slavin explains, quite unlikely. This is partly because the administration has provided no proposition to which any Iranian leader could say “yes” and survive politically to tell the tale. A more likely consequence of the Trump administration’s course is the outbreak of war. War, of course, is the ultimate political distractor. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who long has itched for a war with Iran, is able to make things happen that would increase further the chance of such a war, even without any micromanagement from his boss.


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