World roundup: January 19 2023
Stories from Lebanon, Taiwan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 18, 1976: Christian militias linked to Lebanon’s Kataeb Party rampage through the poor and predominantly Palestinian Karantina neighborhood in east Beirut. They’re estimated to have killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 people, making the Karantina Massacre one of the first major atrocities of the Lebanese Civil War.
January 18, 2002: The Sierra Leone civil war, which had begun in 1991, ends with the victory of the British-backed Sierra Leone government over the Revolutionary United Front rebels backed by Liberian President Charles Taylor. The conflict was known largely for its atrocities, from the copious use of child soldiers to the mass killing and rape of civilians. For his involvement in the conflict, the International Criminal Court convicted Taylor of war crimes in 2012 and he’s currently serving a 50 year prison term.
January 19, 1817: Argentine rebel leader José de San Martín leads his army, along with a group of Chilean rebels led by Bernardo O’Higgins, across the Andes Mountains into royalist-controlled Chile. Although San Martín lost by some counts as much as a third of his army in the crossing, the combined force emerged in Chile and won the decisive Battle of Chacabuco on February 12, forcing royalist forces to withdraw north into Peru. The crossing is considered a milestone in the course of the Latin American independence movement.
January 19, 1883: The borough of Roselle in New Jersey becomes the first community lit entirely with electric lighting via overhead wires. The wiring system was designed by Thomas Edison as proof that an entire town could be electrified in this way. Needless to say the concept caught on.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Lebanese parliament tried and failed for the eleventh time to elect a new president on Thursday, a display of futility that may have helped push the Lebanese pound to a new all-time exchange low of over 50,000 per US dollar in black market trading. The legislature’s ongoing inability to coalesce on a president means it can’t begin to consider forming a new government, which leaves nobody in position to take action to try to stabilize the currency or negotiate new international financial arrangements.
Compounding the political crisis, Lebanese central bank governor Riad Salameh is under investigation in a Europe-wide money laundering scandal that further compromises negotiations with, say, the International Monetary Fund. Salameh has been in office since 1993 and he’s accused of treating Lebanon’s financial system like one giant Ponzi scheme, contributing greatly to the country’s ongoing economic implosion. His current term should be up this year, but with only a caretaker government running the country it’s unclear whether he can be replaced.
Israeli occupation forces killed two more Palestinians, one an Islamic Jihad member and the other a teacher, during an operation in the West Bank city of Jenin on Thursday. As ever Israeli officials say their personnel came under attack and responded in self-defense. Israeli forces have now killed 17 Palestinians in the West Bank so far in 2023.
The Israeli Supreme Court’s order that Benjamin Netanyahu sack his minister of health and the interior, Aryeh Deri, is threatening to drive the country deeper into a political crisis as early indications are that Netanyahu and Deri intend to simply ignore the Court. When he was forming his far-right coalition, Netanyahu was at pains to assure the Israeli public and an international audience that he would ultimately be running the show and that he would keep any reactionary excesses in check. The truth is that Netanyahu is now beholden to those reactionaries, including those like Deri who have criminal malfeasance on their records. He can’t fire Deri without risking his coalition.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered parliament’s dissolution on Thursday and scheduled a snap election—the first parliamentary election under the constitutional changes he pushed through last year—for March 19. In promoting those constitutional changes, Tokayev indicated that he’d be surrendering some of his power to parliament to rebalance Kazakhstan’s political institutions. His overwhelming victory in November’s presidential election appears to have cast some doubt on his alleged commitment to democratic norms so I would imagine this vote will come under some scrutiny.
Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked a police facility in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Thursday, killing at least three police officers when one of the attackers detonated a suicide bomb. At last check Pakistani authorities had not determined the number of people who were wounded in the attack.
The Myanmar military reportedly killed at least seven people late Wednesday when it conducted airstrikes on a village in central Myanmar’s Sagaing region. At least five more people were wounded in the attack and most of the surviving villagers appear to have fled. It’s unclear what would have provoked the attack and so far there’s been no comment on the incident from Myanmar authorities.
In case you missed it, new FX contributor James Lin looks at the history behind Taiwan’s current state of international marginalization:
Since the 1960s, the PRC—through its communist ally, Albania—lobbied the UN to replace the ROC with the PRC. For decades, with opposition behind the scenes from the US, Albanian-introduced resolutions on this issue failed to garner the two-thirds majority required for decisions on a nation’s membership in the UN. Yet, by the late 1960s, the votes were steadily rising in Beijing’s favor. More and more nations, especially those in the global South, saw that Beijing governed hundreds of millions, compared to tens of millions governed by the ROC in Taiwan, and recognized that omission as a problem.
In 1971, when it became clear that UN Resolution 2758 replacing the ROC with the PRC would pass with a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly, the US presented Chiang with several options. Two alternatives were raised: a “Two China” solution that would allow the ROC and PRC to co-exist in the UN, or a “One China, One Taiwan” solution that would allow the ROC to exist internationally as Taiwan. Chiang, ever the nationalist, summarily rejected both alternatives. There could only be one China, and that was the Republic of China. So the ROC left the UN, and as a result became increasingly marginalized in the international community.
Kenyan security forces carried out an operation targeting al-Shabab fighters in Garissa county on Thursday, killing at least ten people and reportedly seizing a substantial cache of weapons. Al-Shabab hasn’t commented as far as I know but the group is active in northern Kenya and has been particularly active in Garissa in recent days.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
CODECO militia fighters reportedly attacked a displaced persons camp in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province on Thursday, killing at least seven people. After the attack, a group of camp residents ransacked an office belonging to the United Nations DRC peacekeeping operation. Civilians in the eastern DRC have grown increasingly frustrated with UN peacekeepers, who seem either unable or unwilling to do very much to keep the peace or protect civilians. That frustration has at times boiled over into protests, sometimes violent protests, in Ituri and neighboring North Kivu provinces.
The Russian military has reportedly installed air defense systems on several rooftops in Moscow. It’s unclear that anybody is planning to carry out an airstrike on the Russian capital, but I suppose this is the sort of thing it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have. It may also have some symbolic value in that the sight of these installations will reinforce the Russian government’s message that Russia is perpetually at risk from a hostile West.
Members of the “Ukraine Defense Contact Group” are meeting in Germany this week, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says he’s expecting Friday’s session to produce a major announcement regarding the provision of main battle tanks to the Ukrainian military. Thursday’s session generated billions of dollars worth of new weapons commitments, including a new $2.5 billion package from the United States featuring more Bradley Fighting Vehicles and, for the first time, Stryker armored vehicles, but the question of tanks still remains unsettled despite numerous Ukrainian requests for that particular type of weapons.
Most attention in this regard has focused on Germany, whose Leopard 2 tanks are widely used throughout Europe and would be the easiest to transfer to Ukraine in the short term. The German government has re-export agreements that require its assent before countries using the Leopard can transfer it on to Ukraine, and so far it has refused to give that assent. Earlier this week it was reported that the Germans were willing to approve the transfer of Leopards if the US government were to agree to send its M1 Abrams tank to Ukraine, but Washington has evinced little interest in doing that and there is a feeling that the Abrams’ high fuel consumption and durability issues make it a poor choice for use in Ukraine. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius appeared to deny the Abrams report on Thursday.
A group of European governments meeting separately in Estonia on Thursday, including the United Kingdom, announced their own collective plan to inject more and more sophisticated arms into Ukraine as soon as possible. Among the countries involved in that agreement are several that use the Leopard 2—including Poland, whose prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, suggested to Polish media that his government could decide to send its Leopards to Ukraine whether or not Germany approves. More countries may make similar pledges on Friday, which would put more pressure on the Germans to either permit the transfers or risk their biggest weapons clients flouting German export rules.
As expected, the Czech government easily survived its parliamentary no-confidence vote on Wednesday evening. There had been no indication of any sort of disruption in the ruling coalition ahead of the vote that would have given the opposition a real chance of winning. The confidence motion appears to have been intended mostly as a campaign stunt by former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who leads the opposition ANO party and who is revving up for the second round of the Czech presidential election at the end of this month.
An estimated 1.1 million or more people demonstrated in Paris and other cities across France, and unions staged nationwide strikes, on Thursday to express opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The protests appear to have been mostly peaceful but there were some violent incidents, particularly in Paris:
Macron doesn’t seem terribly moved by the public opposition. He’s insisted that raising the retirement age is unavoidable lest the French pension system become insolvent. Union leaders have countered that raising taxes or mandating higher contributions from employers would keep the system solvent without dumping the burden on workers, but Macron is ideologically opposed to those options. The unions are already planning another day of strikes and marches later this month.
A Bolivian judge on Thursday upheld Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho’s pre-trial detention. A different judge late last month ordered Fernando Camacho, who in addition to being governor of Bolivia’s largest state is also the most prominent opposition figure in the country, held for four months as he faces potential charges for his role in fomenting the 2019 coup that ousted former Bolivian President Evo Morales. His supporters have been blockading highways in Santa Cruz to try to force his release. It’s probably safe to assume that unrest will continue or even escalate in light of this decision.
Two people were killed in southern Peru’s Puno region on Wednesday amid further protests over the ouster and arrest of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo. Angry residents of the town of Macusani attacked a police station in response, forcing the officers stationed there to evacuate by helicopter. Since Castillo was removed from office last month some 55 people have been killed in these protests, most of them in southern Peru where support for Castillo has been strongest. On Thursday, thousands of Castillo supporters, many of them from southern Peru, demonstrated in Lima to demand Castillo’s release from custody and the resignation of Peru’s current government. Police responded with tear gas but I have not seen any reports of fatalities. One protester was killed in the city of Arequipa when demonstrators attempted to enter the airport.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Hartung argues that the US military’s massive annual budget doesn’t make sense even by the Pentagon’s own standards:
The Pentagon’s long-awaited National Defense Strategy, released late last year, is an object lesson in how not to make choices among competing priorities. It calls for preparing to win wars against Russia or China, engage in military action against Iran or North Korea, and continue to wage a Global War on Terror that involves stationing 200,000 troops overseas, while taking part in counterterror operations in at least 85 countries, according to figures compiled by the Brown University Costs of War project.
President Biden deserves credit for ending America’s 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan, despite opposition from significant portions of the Washington and media establishments. Unsurprisingly enough, mistakes were made in executing the military withdrawal from that country, but they pale in comparison to the immense economic costs and human consequences of that war and the certainty of ongoing failure, had it been allowed to continue indefinitely.
Still, it’s important to note that its ending by no means marked the end of the era of this country’s forever wars. Biden himself underscored this point in his speech announcing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “Today,” he said, “the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. So, we are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”
In keeping with Biden’s pledge, U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia remains ongoing. Meanwhile, the administration continues to focus its Africa policy on military aid and training to the detriment of non-military support for nations facing the challenges not just of terrorist attacks, but of corruption, human rights abuses, and the devastation of climate change.
Consider it ironic, then, that a Pentagon budget crafted by this administration and expanded upon by Congress isn’t even faintly aligned with that department’s own strategy. Buying $13 billion aircraft carriers vulnerable to modern high-speed missiles; buying staggeringly expensive F-35 fighter jets unlikely to be usable in a great-power conflict; purchasing excess nuclear weapons more likely to spur than reduce an arms race, while only increasing the risk of a catastrophic nuclear conflict; and maintaining an Army of more than 450,000 active-duty troops that would be essentially irrelevant in a conflict with China are only the most obvious examples of how bureaucratic inertia, parochial politics, and corporate money-making outweigh anything faintly resembling strategic concerns in the budgeting process.
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