What Just Happened #8
And what to worry about next
Welcome. Let’s see what’s going on out there this week. Today is Saturday, March 11, 2023.
The name of this newsletter comes from my first book, in which I suggested you can handle whatever comes at you with a believable grin, common sense and whiskey. For the first time since Covid, we’re off on a good, long, proper adventure trip and inviting the world to throw stuff at us.
If things go to plan, this month we’ll cross Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia mostly on the ground. Then, strictly for research purposes, I feel duty bound to report from the lovely French Indian Ocean département of Réunion Island.
In the spirit of leaving, next Tuesday’s travel column will reprise a story I wrote for 3 Quarks Daily when we were on the cusp of a months long trip around the world not long before Covid. After Tuesday’s column, we’ll improvise. I will write to you, but while I’m away, not on the regular Tuesday/Friday/Saturday schedule. The next few weeks will be travelogue.
In the interest of getting out of town, this week’s news digest is a little bit abbreviated. Here’s some of what happened this week:
The opposition bloc in Türkiye has named 74 year old Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the biggest opposition party, the CHP, to stand against 69 year old President Erdoğan in the May election. Kılıçdaroğlu spoke to a kickoff rally yesterday.
Ten thousand people before you await your inspirational message. You’ve reached the pinnacle of your half century in politics. You do not seize the moment. You do not electrify the crowd before you. You look down and read from the sheaf of notes you’re clutching. You look all of your 74 years and you’re reading from a handful of papers. Disappointing start.
The People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, is the third largest party in parliament, and the biggest party that’s not in the coalition that has put Kılıçdaroğlu forward. The HDP says it’s open to adding its endorsement to Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, but that’s tricky.
The HDP is leftish, Kurd-friendly, and Erdoğan has used it as a scapegoat, accusing it of links to the PKK and jailing some of its leadership. Kılıçdaroğlu has to balance how many votes HDP support might bring against whether such a controversial ally might dampen turnout among conservative voters.
The bigger trouble here though is, as Al-Jazeera puts it,
”Kılıçdaroğlu stood unopposed for CHP leader at the May 2010 party convention and became chairman of the centre-left party.
His party has lost all the general and presidential elections to the AK Party and Erdoğan since then....”
Thursday the Wall Street Journal had a story suggesting Saudi Arabia is prepared in principle to normalize relations with Israel, a Biden administration aim, but will want “security guarantees and nuclear aid.”
The article says “Riyadh officials want U.S. support to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production system.” Translated, Riyadh wants the U.S. to violate its policy on the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
This story was entirely overshadowed and potentially rendered moot the next day. On Friday the WSJ carried this report:
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations Friday in a deal brokered by China, ending seven years of estrangement and jolting the geopolitical alignment of the Middle East.
It came without U.S. public involvement:
”The agreement was hammered out in secret in Beijing between top Saudi and Iranian officials over several days, Iranian state-aligned media reported. It comes three months after Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in December in Riyadh, and follows Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s trip to Beijing last month.”
Through clenched teeth, a US NSC spokesman said: ““We have long encouraged direct dialogue and diplomacy to help reduce tensions and reduce risks of conflict.”
We’ll have to see if this development is as remarkable as it looks. One indication will be whether anything changes in the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have backed opposing sides in a proxy war.
It is hard to embarrass the Russian Foreign Minister. Stand aside when he’s doing it himself:
The Andromeda story – that’s the one about the mysterious yacht implicated in blowing up the Nord Stream pipeline – is a riddle, and it’s fascinating. "Six people ... who used forged passports ... transported explosives on a yacht rented from a German charter company by a Poland-based firm owned by Ukrainian citizens...." as Reuters put it on Wednesday. It’s complicated.
In a substack called OSINT and Analysis, Oliver Alexander combs through what is known and unknown and finds inconsistencies. Example: if you believe the emerging theory of the case in articles like the one from Reuters above, and another from Zeit, then, as Alexander puts it, the group “chose the most difficult area to perform the dive where the damage would be the easiest to repair.”
He notes that Russia doesn’t buy the Andromeda story and wonders “why Russia is so keen to completely dismiss a scenario that implicates Ukraine in the destruction of Nord Stream.”
The entire Oliver Alexander article is worth a read.
When you’re as important as I am, you can swear yourself in. I’m just saying.
Whither China, and whither China and the US? Here’s a worth-your-time interview. MIT professor Yasheng Huang is erudite and concise. The transcript. The podcast.
Indonesia has broken ground on its new capital, which is moving north from Java to Borneo. They’ll be carving out a new province from the existing East Kalimintan province near the port city of Balikpapan, and calling both the province and the capital city Nusantara. Here it is on a wider map:
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I’ve written here before about the mess Sri Lanka is in. Last week President Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament he had an agreement with China to restructure some of Sri Lanka’s debt. That was apparently the final sticking point keeping the country from an IMF bailout.
Part of what got Sri Lanka into this mess was a huge Chinese loan as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. China has had a long string of lending schemes prior to Belt and Road. I learned this week that the slogan for the one before the Belt and Road was the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind. Cool name.
We cast foreign governments’ efforts to undermine our system of government via intelligence skulduggery as despicable. We spent a whole breathless year on handwringing and congressional investigations of Russian influence in our 2016 election. But looky here, the Intercept has a story with this lead paragraph:
”U.S. Special Operations Command, responsible for some of the country’s most secretive military endeavors, is gearing up to conduct internet propaganda and deception campaigns online using deepfake videos, according to federal contracting documents reviewed by The Intercept.”
Work hard, play by the rules, brush your teeth and one day maybe you, too, can corrupt democracies in other lands. No one will be shocked to hear allegations of corruption in the recent election in Kenya.
Meet “a hacking and disinformation specialist named Tal Hanan, a former Israeli special forces operative who with a team of associates sells his services in order to sway democratic elections.”
An investigation found that Hanan used hacking techniques to get into the Telegram and Gmail accounts of political advisers close to (then presidential candidate William) Ruto … before last year’s election.” It’s a group that “sells hacking services and access to vast army of fake social media profiles.” Welcome to every future election, everywhere, ever.
Kenya’s in a tough neighborhood, and the news this week is characteristically grim. Next door, there is trouble on both ends of Somalia. The map:
First, in the far south of the country, Reuters reports:
”Al-Shabaab on Tuesday overran a military base in the southern Jubbaland region that it lost to the Somali army in January. Somali forces from Jubbaland took control of Janay Abdale from al-Shabaab as part of a major offensive.”
At the other end of the country, according to AFP:
“An estimated around 100,000 people have fled fighting in Somalia's breakaway Somaliland region into a remote drought-hit area of Ethiopia, UN and Ethiopian refugee agencies said on Tuesday.”
They’re talking about Doolo, see the top map, which is among the least equipped places in the world to accommodate 100,000 refugees.
These look like obscure, faraway conflicts with little to do with the West. But we all share the changing climate, and east Africa’s woes are compounded by climate change. The United Nations says:
“The Horn of Africa is experiencing the most severe drought in recent history, following four consecutive failed rainy seasons in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.”
The region is well into missing its fifth season of rain.
Somaliland, as distinct from Somalia, is a self-governing region of northwest Somalia that has claimed independence since 1991 (see top map), but it hasn’t been recognized internationally, anywhere. We can talk about Somaliland’s high hopes another time, but this breakdown of order is disastrous there, in what has been an island of relative stability.
We can only expect more pressure on resources, more displaced people and more conflicts like these. And while we’re on Somalia, since we rarely are, Fordham Law’s Center on National Security points to an article titled The U.S. doesn’t know what it’s doing in Somalia, which asks a good question:
”Does the U.S. need to participate in a civil war to protect itself against terrorism?”
It’s climate change everywhere. The Times of London asserts,
”Arctic summer sea-ice cover will have declined by 155,000 square miles by 2028 — or an area 1.5 times the size of the UK.”
And it runs a thoroughly depressing list:
The other day it was cool outside. That came as a jolt because here in Atlanta we’ve already gotten used to the changing of the seasons. Yes, yes, the UK had its coldest days of the winter last week and northern Europe had a long, cold, wet week, but here, flowers bloom, leaves are back on trees and it was already spring in February.
This has been Atlanta's 4th-warmest winter on record, with average temperatures from December through February of 51.9°F — 11.6 degrees
I read a story about how IndiGo – overwhelmingly India’s biggest airline – is effectively based in Turkey (In a newsletter from aviation website simpleflying.com). Interesting enough, but what caught my eye is that “it is believed that Turkish Airlines will acquire ultra-high-density 777-300ERs – those with well over 500 seats – partly for IndiGo, which will also be used on IndiGo's coming Mumbai-Istanbul.” Honestly? May neither you nor I never have to fly in an airplane with well over 500 seats.
At the other end of the pack ‘em in scale, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) Flight SK925 from Copenhagen to Washington is currently the world’s longest non-stop narrow-body flight, lasting around 9 hours and 30 minutes. This flight is operated by an Airbus A321neo aircraft.
Here's the rest of the top ten longest narrow body flights.
Incidentally, last Tuesday’s travel story was about Svalbard, and last week I saw a really well done, really worthwhile video. Enjoy it here: it’s a tour of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Two stories this week about big, tough governors acting big and tough. The Washington Post reports that on Tuesday
“Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed into law this week legislation that rolls back significant portions of the state’s child labor protections.
The law eliminates requirements for the state to verify the age of children younger than 16 before they can take a job.”
Governor Huckabee says all that protecting children stuff is “burdensome and obsolete.”
And finally, an AP story begins:
“NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Lee says it would be “ridiculous” to conflate a recently surfaced yearbook photo of him wearing women’s clothing in high school to drag show performances currently under attack in Tennessee and other GOP-led states.”
The crusading, kid-protecting anti-woke governor “plans to sign legislation that would severely limit where drag performances can take place” to help protect the morals of our poor, corruptible children.
On Monday, Lee was fielding questions from reporters about the legislation and other anti-LGBTQ bills when an activist asked him if he remembered ‘dressing up in drag in 1977.’”
They showed him a photo of himself as a high school senior dressed in women’s clothing. It was all in good fun when he did it. Don’t you do it, though, because the governor knows best.
That’s it for today. The schedule here for the next few weeks will be erratic as I file from the road. On Tuesday, look for a column I wrote in 1999 when we were on the cusp of a months long trip around the world.
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