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17 June 2019   Leave a comment

Paul Pillar is one of the most perceptive analysts of US foreign policy. While with the US CIA, he accused the BUsh Administration of “cherry-picking” evidence to justify the invasion of Iraq (Paul was also a personal friend of mine while we were students in College). He has written a short essay on the current tension between the US and Iran. He blames the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran as the reason for the spike in tensions:

“Despite the continued uncertainty, Iran may well have been the perpetrator. Assume for the moment what the administration wants everyone to assume, which is that the Iranian regime attacked the ships. It is in asking why Iran might have done so that Pompeo’s statement is most questionable. Twice Pompeo applied the term unprovoked to Iranian actions (“40 years of unprovoked aggression against freedom-loving nations” and “these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security”).

“Unprovoked”? The Trump administration reneged completely over a year ago on U.S. commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that has restricted Iran’s nuclear program and closed all possible paths to a nuclear weapon. Since then the administration has waged economic warfare on Iran, despite Iran continuing for a whole year to observe its obligations under the JCPOA. The administration has piled sanction upon sanction in a relentless effort to cripple Iran’s economy, make life miserable for Iranians, and weaken Iran in every way possible. It has pressured countries around the world not to do any business with Iran. The administration has accompanied this campaign with unlimited hostility, threats of military attack, and saber-rattling that has included escalating military deployments in Iran’s backyard. If this isn’t provoking Iran, then the term provocation has lost all meaning.”

I doubt that the essay will receive the attention it deserves, but we should remember his words as the rhetoric against Iran increases in intensity.

The Guardian has started a special series called “Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret” It is a revealing investigation, tracking US exports of plastic to many different countries. China used to take most of US exports of plastic waste, but stopped importing it last year. Since then, the US has tried to find alternatives and is now sending its plastic waste to countries that are poor and have very weak environmental laws such as Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal. The UN passed a new treaty last week regulating the export of plastic waste. According to the treaty: “Exporting countries – including the US – now will have to obtain consent from countries receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste. Currently, the US and other countries can send lower-quality plastic waste to private entities in developing countries without getting approval from their governments.” The treaty was signed by 187 countries, but the US was not among the signatories. The dangers of plastic waste and the process of recycling plastic waste are legion and well-documented by the NGO Gaia.

Plastic waste on the beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.


Posted June 17, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

16 June 2019   Leave a comment

Temperatures in the Arctic have risen dramatically in the month of June, leading to a large ice melt in Greenland. Indeed, the rate of melt rivals that of the record ice melt in 2012. Temperatures are also very high in Alaska. The melting ice and permafrost will aggravate the situation by decreasing the albedo of the north pole and by releasing more methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Science Alert explains the dynamic:

“Sea ice loss over the Chukchi and Beaufort seas along Alaska’s northern coast has been ‘unprecedented’ according to Rick Thoman, a climatologist based in Fairbanks.

“Labe [a climate researcher at the University of California at Irvine] said there’s sufficient open water that you could sail all the way from the Bering Strait into a narrow opening just north of Utqiagvik, Alaska’s northernmost city, clear into the Beaufort Sea. ‘It’s very unusual for open water this early in this location,’ he said.”

Fareed Zakaria has written a very good essay for Foreign Affairs entitled “The Self-Destruction of American Power”. The argument is straightforward but still complex: that the US lost its standing in world affairs because it did not remain true to its values:

“There is an analogy here with the United States. Had the country acted more consistently in the pursuit of broader interests and ideas, it could have continued its influence for decades (albeit in a different form). The rule for extending liberal hegemony seems simple: be more liberal and less hegemonic. But too often and too obviously, Washington pursued its narrow self-interests, alienating its allies and emboldening its foes. Unlike the United Kingdom at the end of its reign, the United States is not bankrupt or imperially overextended. It remains the single most powerful country on the planet. It will continue to wield immense influence, more than any other nation. But it will no longer define and dominate the international system the way it did for almost three decades.”

It is a rich essay, worthy of close attention.

Posted June 16, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

13 June 2019   Leave a comment

The US continues to make the case for war against Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the following statement to the press today:

“It is the assessment of the United States Government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today. This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.

“This is only the latest in a series of attacks instigated by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its surrogates against American and allied interests, and they should be understood in the context of 40 years of unprovoked aggression against freedom-loving nations.

“On April 22nd, Iran promised the world that it would interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. It is now working to execute on that promise. In early May, the Revolutionary Guard Corps attempted the covert deployment of modified dhows capable of launching missiles.

“On May 12th, Iran attacked four commercial ships near the Strait of Hormuz.

“On May 14th, Iran-backed surrogates attacked by armed drones — struck two strategically important oil pipelines into Saudi Arabia.

“On May 19th, a rocket landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“On May 31st, a car bomb in Afghanistan wounded four U.S. service members, killed four Afghan civilians, and wounded bystanders.

“Yesterday, Iranian surrogates fired a missile into Saudi Arabia, striking the arrivals terminal of an international airport, injuring 26 people.

“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran.”

Mr Pompeo did not provide any information about the information upon which these judgments are made nor did he take any questions from the press. Note that the last four incidents mentioned by Mr. Pompeo are actions that occurred in an ongoing conflict and are hardly evidence of an unprovoked attack by any party to the conflict.

The first two incidents are indeed troubling because they threaten the flow of oil to world markets and because they were acts committed against civilian actors. But, even if they were committed by agents of the Iranian government, there is a context to these actions. The US has engaged in strict sanctions on the sale of Iranian oil despite the fact that there was no evidence that Iran had violated the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iranian nuclear deal. In that agreement, the US promise to lift sanctions if Iran adhered to the terms of the JCPOA.

The US did not use violence to cut off Iranian oil exports, but the effect of the sanctions is to cut off the most important source of revenues to Iran. If Iran is behind the attacks on the oil tankers, it may be using the only tools available to respond to the US economic sanctions: cutting off oil exports from the Persian Gulf may be the only way Iran may have to respond to what it regards as economic aggression. To shed light on this possibility it is instructive to read the press briefing between the State Department and the press today:

QUESTION: Okay. And then secondly, related to that, yesterday at the IAEA your ambassador said that Iran was out of compliance, or in violation of the JCPOA, of the nuclear deal, and that it should get back into compliance, and that the other – the remaining parties to the deal should make that a priority. This suggests to me that even though you guys say that this is the worst deal ever negotiated and a horrible failure, that you actually see some value in it. Why would you call for Iran to comply with a deal that you think is essentially garbage if —


QUESTION: Is it better than nothing? Is that what the position of the administration is?

MS ORTAGUS: Our position on the JCPOA has not changed. But we, of course, do not want Iran to get a nuclear weapon. We also want them to stop their malign activities, supporting terrorists. There’s a lot of news in the Middle East today, as you saw the Houthis – of course, with more potentially reported missile attacks on civilian Saudi infrastructure. So we look at – whether it’s the JCPOA or our maximum pressure campaign towards Iran – holistically. It’s not – it’s certainly about a nuclear weapon, and I know that our European counterparts would like the Iranians to stay in the JCPOA. We certainly do not want them to have a nuclear weapon.

But more broadly, I mean, can you imagine if all of you were getting ready to fly to Miami airport and there was a group like the Houthis, a militia like the Houthis, that were using – reportedly using missiles in order to attack an airport before you flew in? Can you imagine how the United States would respond to that, how Canada would respond if that was happening in Ottawa? I mean, these are common-sense things here that we want the Iranians to stop terrorizing innocent people.

QUESTION: I get that. But this is specifically about the nuclear deal —


QUESTION: — which only covered the nuclear deal, and that’s one of the issues that you have with it —


QUESTION: — because you didn’t think it went far enough. But as it relates purely to the nuclear deal, to the nuclear aspect and the centrifuges, which is what the operation of advanced centrifuges, which is what you say they are violating – why do you care if the deal is – if the deal is bad? Saying that – demanding that Iran come back into compliance with a deal that you have withdrawn from because you see no value in it seems to be contradictory to me.

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t think it’s contradictory in the fact that we have stated very loudly since the beginning of this administration that we do not want the Iranian regime to get a nuclear weapon. We think it would be disastrous —

QUESTION: Well, fair enough. But are you saying, then —

MS ORTAGUS: — for the Middle East. I – we haven’t changed our position.

QUESTION: But this seems to me that you’re saying that some limits are better than no limits, and so therefore there is value in the requirements – limits that were placed on Iran in the deal.

MS ORTAGUS: Iran is headed in the wrong direction, as evidenced by this now public IAEA report. They pose a challenge to international peace and security, and we will continue this maximum pressure campaign as it relates to their nuclear weapons program, their terrorism and malign activities around the region.

The US position on the JCPOA is indeed ridiculous. Iran did not violate the JCPOA but the US did by ending its commitment without justification. The evidence suggests that the US is ramping up its actions against Iran and that it believes that Iran has no right to respond to those actions. I am not sure that there is any analog in diplomatic history that suggests that this is a workable plan of action.

Vision of Humanity has released its Global Peace Index (GPI) for 2019. The index is a measure of the incidence of violence in societies based upon a number of variables. Like all such indices, one can quarrel with the metrics used, but the GPI uses ones that are familiar and can be measured quantitatively. According to the report:

“The average level of global peacefulness improved very slightly last year on the 2019 Global Peace Index (GPI). This was the first time that the index improved in the last five years. The average country score improved by -0.09 per cent, with 86 countries improving and 76 recording deteriorations.

“Iceland remains the most peaceful country in the world, a position it has held since 2008. It is joined at the top of the index by New Zealand, Austria, Portugal, and Denmark. Bhutan has recorded the largest improvement of any country in the top 20, rising 43 places in the last 12 years.

“Afghanistan is now the least peaceful country in the world, replacing Syria, which is now the second least peaceful. South Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq comprise the remaining five least peaceful countries. This is the first year since the inception of the index that Yemen has been ranked amongst the five least peaceful countries.”

The results are broadly consistent with a casual understanding of world affairs and the GPI is a very useful way to think systematically about trends in violence in the world.

The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group clustered in the Xinjiang province in China. Most of them are Muslim and have lived in the region for many centuries. There are about 10 million Uighurs in China and some analysts believe that about 1-3 million of them are currently being held in what China calls “vocational education training centers” but what others call concentration camps. The Telegraph identifies the way the central government in Beijing treats the Uighurs during the holy month of Ramadan:

“Despite mounting international pressure and condemnation, the massive crackdown on the Uighur people and their shrinking culture here shows no signs of abating for the Muslim holy month.

“Widespread intimidation – from inside mosques to family homes – mean residents don’t dare utter the traditional Islamic greeting, “as-salaam alaikum”, while fasting is also banned, with restaurants forced to stay open. 

“At schools and local authority offices, ‘the Chinese government provides water, food – lunch – to force you to drink and eat,’ said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group.

“Local officials are increasing checks to people’s homes, too, to make sure they aren’t secretly observing the practice, according to a government notice posted online.”

Unfortunately, very few of the primarily Muslim states in the world have openly protested the treatment of the Uighurs.

Posted June 13, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

12 June 2019   Leave a comment

The second worst outbreak of the Ebola virus has spread from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to neighboring Uganda. Uganda is better prepared than most countries to deal with Ebola, but the fact that the virus has spread is deeply unsettling. Three people–two children and their grandmother–had traveled from the DRC to Uganda and one of the children has died. This outbreak has killed about 2000 people in the DRC, largely in one area of the DRC that has been wracked by violence which limited the ability of health professionals to address the outbreak. Medecin sans Frontieres has excellent information on the disease and how it is contained.

Police in Hong Kong fired tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters who are opposed to an extradition bill which might allow dissenters in Hong Kong to be tried in the more draconian courts in Beijing. The protesters believe that the bill is an attempt to erode the democratic freedoms guaranteed in the agreement by which Great Britain left its former colony in 1997 (an agreement that was supposed to last for 50 years). CNN outlines the supporters and opponents of the bill:

Who’s against the bill

Civil rights activists: Critics say the bill will leave anyone on Hong Kong soil vulnerable to being grabbed by the Chinese authorities for political reasons or inadvertent business offenses and undermine the city’s semi-autonomous legal system.

Businesses and trade unions: More than 100 firms said they would shut doors Wednesday to protest the bill and allow employees to join a rally outside the legislature. Trade unions have also suggested they might call on members to stop work in protest.

Journalists: Earlier this year, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement that the amendment would “not only threaten the safety of journalists but also have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu tweeted in support of the anti-extradition protests: “I stand shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of thousands in #HongKong fighting the extradition bill & for rule of law. Please know you are not alone. #Taiwan is with you! The will of the people will prevail!”

European and US agencies: Representatives from the European Union have met with Hong Long leaders and expressed concern over the bill. Members of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China have also spoken out against the bill, warning it could “negatively impact the relationship between the United States and Hong Kong.”

And who’s for it

Hong Kong’s leader: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to withdraw the extradition bill, saying it is needed to plug loopholes to prevent the city from becoming a haven for mainland fugitives.

China’s Foreign Ministry: Chinese officials have supported the Hong Kong government as it attempts to table to the bill in Parliament.

The protests seem to be the next step for the pro-democracy protests that occurred in 2014. But the number of protesters is much larger and the demands seem to be more urgent. The US response to the protests has been mildly supportive to the demands, but a strong condemnation from President Trump over the treatment of the protesters is not likely.

Posted June 12, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

11 June 2019   Leave a comment

The Wall Street Journal reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who was assassinated in 2017, was an informant for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In an extraordinary statement, US President Trump said “I saw the information about the CIA, with respect to his brother, or half-brother. And I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.” It is highly unusual for a governmental leader to admit that any foreign national worked with the national intelligence agency. And it is even more unusual for a leader to publicly eschew the ability to spy on an adversary. President Trump celebrates his unorthodox and disruptive style, but it is hard to figure out why he would cozy up to Kim Jong-un by giving up so much for so little in return. Indeed, President Trump continues to believe, despite all the available evidence, that he can work with leader Kim. The Washington Post quotes Mr. Trump today:

“President Trump said he received a ‘beautiful letter’ from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a note he said portended progress for his administration’s stalled denuclearization talks with the rogue regime.

“Trump, speaking to reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, said Kim’s letter came Monday.

“’I can’t show you the letter obviously, but it was a very personal, very warm, very nice letter,’ Trump said. ‘North Korea has tremendous potential, and he’ll be there. Under his leadership . . . And the one that feels that more than anybody is [Kim]. He gets it. He totally gets it.’”

It is hard not to conclude that Mr. Trump has let his hopes get far too high with respect to Kim.

US President Trump waved around a document today that he said was the agreement between the US and Mexico on Mexico’s response to the flow of migrants through its territory to the US. Mr. Trump refused to divulge the contents of the agreement, but a Washington Post photographer took photos of the document and then blew up the images to reveal a great deal of the agreement. The images raise many questions about the agreement, including the legal status of the agreement since it was not signed by either President Trump or Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. There are real questions about Mr. Trump’s claims about the agreement. He claimed that Mexico promised to buy more US agricultural products, a claim denied by Mexico. The New York Times has reported that much of the purported agreement was actually made last December, a report that the White House denies. The entire episode has a surreal atmosphere, and it is difficult to determine what was actually decided.

Posted June 11, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

9 June 2019   Leave a comment

India is reporting that dozens have people have died in a heat wave in which temperatures are reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 F). There are also reports of violence associate with water shortages. Parts of India will receive some relief as the monsoon rains have started, albeit a week late. It is impossible to associate the heat wave with climate change, but the patterns of extreme weather continue and it is likely that climate change has some effect of the persistence of that pattern.

Thousands of people in Hong Kong–some estimates put the number at 1 million–are protesting a new extradition bill proposed by the central government in Beijing. The protesters believe that the bill violates the agreement with Great Britain that guaranteed certain personal liberties after Britain ceded control of Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997.

“Hong Kong is a powerhouse of international finance, with a thriving community of foreign businesspeople. It has a vigorous free press, and unlike on the mainland, its 7 million people have the right to demonstrate. Hong Kongers have their own passports. Residents of the city are not subject to China’s oppressive “social credit” system, which assesses each citizen’s trustworthiness with a numerical score and denies travel and other privileges to those who don’t measure up. But the boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland is beginning to blur, as Beijing builds physical connections to Hong Kong Island.

“To make a symbolic statement that Hong Kong is not truly separate. Last fall, authorities opened a 34-mile series of bridges and tunnels linking the big island with mainland China and semi-autonomous Macau. It also built a high-speed rail terminal to connect Hong Kong with the mainland cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Democracy activists vow to continue to fight for the proud city’s independence, but Fenella Sung, coordinator of the expatriate group Friends of Hong Kong, says China casts an increasingly dark shadow. ‘People are very concerned about their freedom of expression, because no one can tell you where the red line is,’ Sung says. ‘You’re always under fear. Hong Kong is dying.'”

The protests represent a serious threat to the Beijing government and it is unclear how the tension will be resolved. This protest, however, is not an isolated incident–it replicates in many respects earlier demonstrations that occurred in 2014, demonstrations what became known as the “Umbrella Movement”.

Posted June 9, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

8 June 2019   Leave a comment

The Washington Post is reporting that the White House blocked the testimony of Dr. Rod Schoonover, Senior Analyst, at the State Department to the Congressional Committee on Intelligence. Schoonover was supposed to testify on the National Security Implications of Climate Change. The Post characterizes some of the conclusions in the written testimony:

“The document sounds the alarms on several fronts, outlining two dozen different ways that ‘climate-linked stresses’ could affect human society. It identifies nine tipping points that could transform the Earth’s system, including ‘rapid melting in West Antarctic or Greenland ice masses’ along with ‘rapid die-offs of many critically important species, such as coral or insects’ and a ‘massive release of carbon’ from methane that is now frozen in the earth. It warns that since scientists have not been able to calculate the likelihood of these thresholds being reached, ‘crossing them is possible over any future timeframe.’

“The prepared testimony also notes that 18 of the past 20 years have ranked as the warmest on record, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ‘and the last five years have been the warmest five.’”

The Trump Administration believes that these propositions have not been scientifically verified even though a large number of independent studies have come to similar conclusions. According to the Post:

” Trump has been steadfast in shrugging off warnings from scientists about the potential impacts of climate change, reiterating in an interview with Piers Morgan on ‘Good Morning Britain’ this week that he does not regret pulling the United States out of a 2015 global climate accord aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

“’I believe that there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways,’ he said. ‘Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming. That wasn’t working. Then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather because, with extreme weather, you can’t miss.’

During the interview he blamed China, India and Russia for polluting the environment and insisted the United States has ‘among the cleanest climates,’ noting that the United States had suffered extreme weather in the past. ‘Forty years ago, we had the worst tornado binge we’ve ever had. In the 1890s, we had our worst hurricanes.’

“The United States remains the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind China.

“What the president meant by ‘worst hurricanes‘ is unclear. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the six most costly hurricanes on record have all occurred since 2005, and three — Maria, Harvey and Irma — have hit the United States during Trump’s tenure. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, in which at least 6,000 people perished, remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.”

Censoring expert opinion is not a healthy process in a democracy. The Administration has plenty of opportunities to present its own views without preventing contrary views from being aired. However, it is hard to defend the views of this Administration. In an interview, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the following comments:

“‘The climate’s been changing a long time. There’s always changes that take place,’ Pompeo said during an interview with the Washington Times published Friday, when asked whether he thought climate change was man-made and how best to address it. He did not mention anything about man-made pollution in his remarks.

“‘Societies reorganize, we move to different places, we develop technology and innovation,’ he added. ‘I am convinced, I am convinced that we will do the things necessary as the climate changes.'”

Pompeo is undoubtedly correct. But rather than accepting the reality of climate change, he would be better advised to do something to stop it.

Posted June 8, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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