World roundup: November 3 2020

Stories from the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Russia, and more

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Hello, and welcome to the one thing on the internet this evening that definitely is not about the US presidential election! However, I will be getting out of the way a bit early this evening given the circumstances, and that means 1) a relatively short update and 2) no daily COVID-19 figures for a change, because they won’t be available yet.


November 2, 1917: The Balfour Declaration is issued.

November 2, 1964: Saudi King Saud b. Abdulaziz is ousted in an internal family coup. Saud and his brother/crown prince, Faysal, had been engaged in a power struggle since their father’s death in 1953, one that Faysal really won earlier in the year when he and the rest of the ruling family largely stripped Saud of his authority and forced him to name Faysal as his regent. Saud’s mismanagement of the country and concerns that he was not up to the challenge posed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s republican ideology led to his marginalization and ultimately removal from power. Finally in November the ruling family made Faysal the king officially.

November 3, 644: The second Muslim caliph, Umar, is assassinated. Between the total conquest of the Persian Empire and the capture of most of the Byzantine Empire, Umar’s caliphate saw a massive expansion in the Arab empire that had been established by Muhammad. He was murdered by a slave, Piruz Nahavandi (or “Abu Lulu”), who had previously been a soldier in the Persian army. His motives are unclear, but revenge for the Arab conquest may have been among them.

November 3, 1903: Panama declares itself independent of Colombia, at the encouragement of a US government that wanted to deal with an independent and…oh, let’s say “persuadable” Panamanian government in constructing the Panama Canal. Commemorated as Panamanian Separation Day.

November 3, 1978: The United Kingdom grants Dominica independence.

November 3, 1986: The Federated States of Micronesia becomes independent of the United States.



Malawi on Tuesday became the first African nation to announce its intention to put an embassy in Jerusalem, which it plans to do by next summer. Malawi doesn’t currently have an Israeli embassy so this won’t involve a relocation from Tel Aviv. It joins the US and Guatemala, which have already opened their Jerusalem embassies, as well as Honduras, which announced its intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem back in September, and Serbia and Kosovo, which agreed (I think) to put embassies in Jerusalem in an odd White House event in August.


At Responsible Statecraft, the Center for International Policy’s Sydney Boer looks at how the UAE’s rulers have been able to ingratiate themselves to the United States and suppress internal opposition under the guise of counter-terrorism:

The United States’ emphasis on the “war on terror” enabled a convenient justification for Abu Dhabi to pursue domestic political repression. Citizens have privately accused the government of monitoring private communications and organizations under the guise of state protection from terrorism. International human rights defenders have documented unethical detention and corrupt court practices, some of which have landed political figures in prison for decades. Yet, there has been little outrage from the United States because the UAE claims to abide by the U.S. national security priority of “defeating” violent extremism.

The UAE also aligns its interventionist campaigns with U.S. counterterrorism initiatives in the region, which has enabled it to pursue its authoritarian policies on a regional scale. Abu Dhabi has supported military campaigns in favor of like-minded regimes in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, in efforts to curb the development of political groups that reflect the views of anti-government entities within the Emirates. Critics have noted that Emirati military campaigns to ostensibly counter extremist groups have resulted in serious human rights violations and war crimes. But yet again, as long as Abu Dhabi cites counterterrorism as its objective, they can indiscriminately conduct warfare with little U.S. objection.

As the Emirates progressively become more involved in regional and global initiatives, it reinforces its security alliance with Washington. In a sense, the U.S. does not contest Abu Dhabi’s agenda because it mirrors its own indiscriminate militarism in the region, as critiqued through this Center for International Policy report of U.S. arms sales. 


OK, I’m going to allow myself one mention of the US election, from a televised address on Tuesday by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei:

“If you look at their own situation, it’s interesting to watch. The incumbent president, who is supposed to hold the elections, says this is the most-rigged U.S. election throughout history,” Khamenei said, not acknowledging that individual U.S. states run the vote. “Who says this? The sitting president who is arranging the elections himself. His opponent says Trump intends to widely cheat. This is American democracy.”

I mean he’s got a point. And it’s not an idle one, to be honest. We can debate the sincerity of America’s goal of upholding and spreading democracy, but our leaders definitely try to use the appeal of democracy as a tool to entice targeted populations (as in Iran) to rise up and overthrow their governments. This would probably be a more effective propaganda tool if we ourselves weren’t constantly making democracy look ridiculous.



Amid reports of Azerbaijani shelling of the Karabakh town of Shushi and its capital city, Stepanakert, on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that Moscow is “certainly worried about the internationalization of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the involvement of militants from the Middle East.” In other words, the Russian government is taking note of the foreign fighters who are now involved in Karabakh, the number of which Lavrov put at around 2000. Most of those, allegedly, are Syrian mercenaries recruited by Turkey to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile, Lavrov’s deputy, Andrey Rudenko, told Russian media that Moscow is “looking carefully” at an Iranian proposal to try to end the Karabakh conflict. He didn’t offer any information about what that proposal entails, but it can’t be any less successful than Russia’s attempts have been. Khamenei may have offered a hint in his address, when he remarked that Karabakh and its surrounding territory—the region occupied by Armenian/Karabakh forces during the Karabakh War in the 1990s—need to be “returned” to Azerbaijan, albeit in such a way that the “security” of the Armenians in Karabakh would be “ensured.” Sounds much easier said than done.


The number of people killed in yesterday’s Islamic State attack on Kabul University has risen to 35. At least 50 people were wounded in the attack and it’s possible the death toll could rise further.


Both the Nepali and Chinese governments were forced on Tuesday to deny a claim that China has seized a chunk of Nepali territory. The claim, from an opposition lawmaker, asserted that Chinese soldiers crossed one kilometer into Nepal in the mountainous Humla region and have started building several structures there. As I say, officials in both governments have denied this, but like China’s border with India, its border with Nepal is largely rugged, mountainous, and poorly defined. So a dispute like this would not be out of the question.


World Politics Review’s Prachi Vidwans writes that Sunday’s general election in Myanmar may represent not the strengthening of its democracy, but its backslide into authoritarianism:

Myanmar is preparing to hold general elections this Sunday, an occasion that might have marked a significant milestone in its ongoing transition from decades of military rule. The previous polls, in 2015, saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy finally win the presidency and a majority of seats in parliament, following the dissolution of the military junta in 2011. Hopes were high that Suu Kyi, who is now Myanmar’s de facto leader, would usher in a new era of peace and expanded freedoms. Yet the consensus today is that Myanmar’s democratic transition has stalled—if it can even be said to be transitioning at all.

On many counts, Suu Kyi and the NLD have overseen the return of repression to the country. The number of politically motivated lawsuits—against journalists, civil society members, activists and ordinary citizens—has been increasing steadily each year, according to a 2019 report by Athan, a Myanmar-based advocacy group. More than 500 people are awaiting trial on politically motivated charges; 180 of them languish in pretrial detention. Social media users have even been prosecuted for criticizing the government on Facebook.

Journalists who report on taboo issues—especially the brutal persecution of the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority—endure legal threats from military and NLD officials alike. Over the summer, COVID-19 became one of those taboo topics when the Transportation and Communications Ministry issued an order blocking 221 independent news sites for allegedly sharing “fake news” about the pandemic. Many of the blocked sites served the country’s ethnic minority populations, which have long felt alienated from the national government. All the while, Suu Kyi has continued to use state media outlets, which she had promised to disband upon her and her party’s election, as propaganda mouthpieces.


Seven, give or take, members of the Islamic-State linked Abu Sayyaf group are believed to have been killed in a sea battle with the Philippine military in Sulu province on Tuesday. Philippine officials say they believe the group was preparing to conduct a kidnapping operation when they intercepted it.


According to South Korean media, North Korea is building two submarines, one of which will be able to fire ballistic missiles. So they’ve got that going for them. Pyongyang has one submarine currently that’s supposed to be capable of firing a ballistic missile, and it has definitely tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, but I’m not sure whether it’s tested them in combination.



Palauan voters chose a new president on Tuesday—hey, I said I wouldn’t be talking about the US election, I said nothing about elections in general—with former Senator Surangel Whipps and incumbent Vice President Raynold Oilouch battling it out in the second round of an election that began on September 22. Whipps won the first round with over 46 percent of the vote so he seems like the favorite to win the runoff, but we’ll see. Official results could take upwards of a week to tally—that’s life in an archipelago, I suppose—but the outcome may be knowable fairly quickly.



Official results from Saturday’s presidential election have, as expected, given Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara a resounding victory in his race for a constitutionally questionable third term. Ouattara won 94 percent of the vote, aided no doubt by the fact that the supporters of his two most prominent rivals boycotted the election. Official turnout was just under 54 percent of the vote, suggesting the boycott wasn’t that successful, though opposition leaders have suggested the government is lying and have claimed that turnout was actually under ten (!) percent.


Building on an interesting assessment of France’s Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel by RAND’s Michael Shurkin, friend of FX Alex Thurston offers some insightful thoughts about the contradictions inherent in Western political and military interventions in the developing world:

That last quote from Shurkin gets to the problem of how external actors define the desired political end-state. For me, I think 21st-century Western policymakers often imagine political end-states in shockingly unrealistic and vague terms, anticipating not just the military defeat but also the political neutralization of insurgencies that clearly have remarkably staying power. I also think (and here Shurkin and many others may disagree with me) that Western policymakers talk a good game about democracy as a desired political end-state or even as a vehicle for reaching that end-state, but that in practice Western policymakers often consciously or unconsciously want to hand off responsibility to a strongman, an authoritarian. Although then at the same time it seems Western policymakers often want someone biddable and relatively weak-willed, which either leads to them selecting someone too weak to fulfill the strongman role, or someone who turns out to be much different than what they expected and then sows the seeds of renewed (or new) conflict. The most vivid depiction of that latter process I’ve read is Dexter FIlkins’ narration of the CIA’s and Zalmay Khalilzad’s selection of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006. That worked out poorly.


Unknown attackers struck two schools in the western Cameroonian town of Kumbo on Tuesday, kidnapping 11 teachers but leaving the children unharmed. Given the location it seems likely that anglophone separatists are involved somehow, though it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty.



At Responsible Statecraft, Georgetown’s Anatol Lieven argues that the tense relationship between Russia and the West today can in part be chalked up to a failure of empathy on the West’s part following the Cold War:

Straightforward Western prejudices (now dignified with the abominable euphemism of “narratives”) are part of the reason for these false perceptions derived from the Cold War. The collapse of Communism, however, also led to a growth in Western hubris that led Western policymakers to fail either to listen to their Russian colleagues when they stated Russia’s vital interests, or to study Russia in sufficient depth to understand that they were not bluffing but really meant what they said. Instead, you had the tragicomic picture of American officials lecturing Russian officials on the “real” interests of Russia.

As a result, U.S. and British officials ignored Russian warnings that if Washington persisted in trying to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia would fight. And when Russia did fight — albeit in a very limited way — this was taken as a sign not of a Western failure to listen, but of Russian “madness,” aggression, and evil. Though if one thinks of the Monroe Doctrine, Russian concerns in this regard should hardly be incomprehensible to an American official. It should also have been easy enough to accept the Russian point that this was a vital interest for the sake of which Moscow was prepared to make very important concessions to Washington on other issues.


Austrian authorities have so far arrested 14 people in connection with Monday’s terrorist attack in Vienna, in which at least four people plus the one known attacker were all killed. Although reports in the immediate aftermath of the attack talked about at least one additional shooter, at this point the only confirmed attacker is the one who was gunned down by police. These 14 people are possible accomplices. The attacker was a dual Austrian-North Macedonian national who’s being characterized as a “supporter” of the Islamic State. He’d previously been convicted for attempting to travel to Syria to fight with IS there and was out on parole. The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attack, though as yet there’s no evidence that the shooter was actually in contact with the organization, merely that he was inspired by it.


Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and new Turkish Cypriot President Ersin Tatar met for the first time on Tuesday in Nicosia and agreed to work toward new “five party” talks (involving Greek and Turkish Cypriots as well as Greece, Turkey, and the UK) on the future of the divided island. That doesn’t mean you should get your hopes up about Cypriot reunification, but given Tatar’s nationalist leanings this encounter could have gone considerably worse.



So, about that election…

If Joe Biden wins we’ll have some thoughts from Bessner and myself later this week about what’s likely to change—and maybe more to the point, what’s likely to stay the same—about US foreign policy. If Donald Trump wins, well, we’ll probably have something to say about that too although obviously it means more of the same. If nobody wins, then I guess we’ll adjust accordingly. I try not to get into a lot of US political talk at Foreign Exchanges because I prefer not to deal in uncertainties, and little about this election has seemed certain to me. Besides, there are plenty of more qualified people out there offering you their political analysis. That’s not why I’m here. So we’ll wait and see who emerges and then go from there. I’ll close, then, by thanking you all for electing (get it? electing? because…oh never mind) to support FX. Stay safe out there!