Category: Regional (page 1 of 4)

Opening the Envelope of Oman’s Succession

The following is a guest post by Andrew Leber, a PhD candidate in Government at Harvard University.

The death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the succession of Haitham bin Tariq as the country’s new ruler, was yet one more high-profile news item this year amid the back-and-forth attacks and tragic consequences of events further up the Gulf.

Yet for the world of political science, this transition calls to mind important questions for comparativists about authoritarian successions in particular and authoritarian institutions more general.

Thinking about Authoritarian Succession
When are authoritarian successions relatively uneventful? What kinds of policy change can they induce – or preclude? What can outgoing rulers do to shape the course of transition processes, and when do they choose to do so?

Let’s take just the first of these questions. Orderly successions are a clear problem for autocratic regimes. Autocrats face what John Herz identified as the “crown-prince problem” back in 1952:

  • Choose a successor, live in fear that they lead a coup against you (see Sultan Qaboos c. 1970)
  • Delay too, risk elite in-fighting during the transition (see Death of Stalin)

Herz also suggests “institutional frameworks” for the transfer of authority, and political scientists have had some success in showing that presence of written or unwritten rules of succession among political parties and extended royal families can help predict the manner and success of authoritarian transitions.We know less about why these institutions sometimes work and sometimes fail, however—-or why they are sometimes honored and sometimes not.

Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council (made up of senior royals) was once held as preserving “democracy at the top” in governing the Saudi succession. Yet the late King Abdullah repeatedly bypassed the Council rearrange the line of succession – a practice that continued under King Salman. 

By contrast, Sultan Qaboos dominated the Omani government and the succession process, with choice of successor left to the ruling family (if they could choose a successor within three days) or Qaboos’s personal preference – written on a letter and hidden within a sealed envelope.

Much could have already gone wrong, as commentators have wondered over the years whether the regime could survive a transition from Sultan Qaboos’ personalized rule.

The royal family might have drawn the decision process out beyond the supposed three-day limit – rumors of a coming succession have swirled for weeks. Sidelined royal family members with close ties to the military might have tried to alter the succession through force of arms. The letter could have been tampered with, or disregarded altogether.

Yet the smooth transition (so far) suggests that the Omani monarchy has survived this initial political test. In a brisk and orderly process, Sultan Qaboos’s choice was announced before the family by the military and documented via photographs shared on social and broadcast media.

Why did the succession rules work in Oman?
Assuming that the public story at all reflects what unfolded behind the scenes (a strong assumption given how little we know about the politics of Oman), we are still left with several potential explanations for why the written rules worked in this case.

Maybe careful design can imbue written words with political power even in autocracies (Frantz and Stein, also the entire literature on authoritarian constitutionalism) – institutions of succession can bind successors at the point of transition. The letter designates a successor, the successor becomes a focal point for coalition bandwagoning among other royals and elite allies eager to secure the status quo, and any disappointed members of the family view an extra-constitutional challenge as too risky.

  • Open-the-envelope works as a succession strategy.

Or perhaps (Abramson and Rivera) Sultan Qaboos’ lengthy tenure in office ultimately set the stage for a peaceful transfer of power. Even if unobservable to outsiders, ruling elites might have interacted with a Qaboos-endorsed successor long enough to trust that he will uphold the political status quo..

  • Open-the-envelope works if the rival contenders trust each other and the successor to uphold the status quo through long experience (most of the leading contenders had served in various branches of the government for decades, albeit largely behind the scenes).

Or international factors may have come into play, ruling elites concerned that a leadership vacuum in turbulent times could invite foreign intrigue or social unrest – threatening their collective access to power and privilege. War or even the threat of war therein (Piplani and Talmadge) might make the risks of seizing power by force even greater than normal.

  • Open-the-envelope works if external threats suggest the cost of disagreement might be immediately catastrophic (though this might equally explain why a palace coup could be presented as a fait accompli to a skittish elite and public).

Or perhaps, per Gerschewski, we can take seriously questions of legitimacy and legitimation in authoritarian regimes. The members of the ruling family know that they will never be as popular  with the public as Sultan Qaboos was, and their best route to “legitimacy”  is to abide by the terms of the Qaboos’ last letter (as successor or supporter). The family’s decision to honor Qaboos’ wish for a small, military funeral (perhaps not the first choice of the public) similarly suggests that Qaboos’ wishes are serving as a safe roadmap for the transition.

  • Open-the-envelope works when a prior, popular ruler can confer legitimacy on a successor and those who abide by the terms of succession (this could perhaps explain why the family reportedly skipped straight to opening the letter).

Of course, it is hard to distinguish between these scenarios (all four could be happening at once!) without a lot more data – hard to come by in autocratic regimes in general, and especially the longstanding yet opaque monarchies of the Arabian peninsula (with the partial exception of Kuwait).

How to Study Succession
Data isn’t the only problem, though – part of the challenge lies in asking the right questions about the right outcomes of interest. It has taken political scientists quite a while to get back to asking the kind of questions that animated a debate on the policy effects of Soviet leadership transitions (between Valerie Bunce and Philip Roeder in the APSR, 1986).

Insights from more transparent cases can shed some light on what to look for when politics are shrouded in the black boxes of authoritarian rule.

Efforts to prolong the Franquist regime after the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco quickly led to a full-fledged transition to democracy – revisiting the plan for continued dictatorship, and examining what went wrong, might yield some answers.

Likewise, the informal institution of Presidents selecting their successors in authoritarian Mexico (the “dedazo,” or “tap of the finger”) has outlived the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s hegemonic hold on power (at least within the Party) – figuring out the staying power of this practice might yield some answers.

In contemporary Russia, the recent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suggests that President Vladimir Putin might be strategizing how best to hand off a modicum of formal power to a successor while retaining considerable influence behind the scenes. Yet some Russia analysts already saw the potential for a “Medvedev succession” back in 2008, when Medvedev briefly held the Russian presidency, raising questions as to whether this represented a failed attempt at Putin stepping back.

For the Middle East (or West Asia) and North Africa, scholars are unlikely to find archival data on the order of the Iraqi Ba‘ath Party records housed at the Hoover Institution (though note the extensive ethical arguments over the status of these documents, captured by U.S. forces in Iraq and unilaterally relocated to the United States).

Still, contested (and more visible) successions are not unknown in the region – even among the Gulf monarchies – and scholars equipped with the right questions might obtain new insights by triangulating between:

In all, political science is far from a complete understanding of authoritarian successions, but we certainly have the building blocks to further theorize the determinants of success in these transitions and their impact (great or nil) on domestic and foreign policies alike.

In the case of Oman, the significance of this smooth transition goes far beyond domestic politics, defying concerns that Sultan Qaboos’s passing might immediately rob the Middle East and North Africa of a key source of moderation and mediation in international relations. Still, the years ahead will tell how much of the Sultanate’s diplomatic heft will outlast the passing of the man who served as head of state, Minister of Defense, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for a half-century.

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The biggest losers from the Suleimani strike may be America’s Gulf allies

Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.

Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.

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The Russian Enigma

On an ice-cold winter evening I arrived in Moscow to untangle the riddle that is Russia. After reading two op-eds by Anne Applebaum and Bill Browder I knew what this country was about but I just wanted to see it for myself. The eyes of the border control guards reflected the thousand years of Russia’s repressive regime. I was half-expecting the KGB to arrest me there and then because four years ago I posted on Facebook that I didn’t like Vlad, but they let me through. My Moscow adventure had begun. 

The shadow of Stalin still looms large over this sprawling city. As soon as you approach the Kremlin you can see his doppelgängers entertaining tourists that shows the profound admiration Russians have for this tyrant. The beautiful Christmas lights mask the darkness that lurks in the hearts of the people that have no hope for the future or French cheese. While checking into my Ritz-Carlton room I couldn’t help but wonder, is the master of the Kremlin checking in on me too?

I didn’t find a Pizza Hut on the Red Square and realized that capitalism has failed here. Russian economy has not really become free after all. Gorbachev brought opportunity to this country, but instead they settled for Lenin’s mausoleum where you can still smell the rotting corpse of Bolshevism. After a decadent dinner in Doktor Zhivago restaurant, I could see that Russians are still trapped in the past, longing to resurrect their Soviet legacy, unable to open themselves up to new experiences (they do accept Apple Pay though). 

On my way to the Bolshoi theatre I got lost and a young lady directed me in English. Her surprisingly not blue eyes and not blond hair, as well as passable language skills will stay in my memory forever as a glimmer of hope that still flickers in this country of slaves. Pogrom, kompromat, troika, kalinka, babushka, gulag, vodka. If you know these words, you will see right through the mysterious Russian soul as did I, after a day and a half stay in a five star hotel in Moscow city center.

On my ride back to the airport, I realized that the East will never understand the West. Our values of the Enlightenment, human rights, liberty and democracy are lost on these people who don’t speak much English. They will never comprehend what it’s like to live in a free country and speak a language that doesn’t have 6 cases and 7 declensions.

Russia is no longer an enigma for me. I riddled me this. 

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Fieldwork and Your Health

Fieldwork – “leaving one’s home institution in order to acquire data, information, or insights that significantly inform one’s research”

(Kapiszewski, MacLean, and Read 2015: 1)

– has long been a cornerstone of social science research. It is a remarkably diverse enterprise: ‘doing fieldwork’ can mean carrying out archival research, interviews, surveys, focus groups, participant observation, ethnography, or experiments. Fieldwork is also quite valuable: it helps orient scholars toward under-addressed ontological questions, including whether many of the concepts that we routinely study actually exist ‘out there’ in the world, or at least exist in the form that our theories postulate. Fieldwork also enables scholars to take measurement seriously, as sometimes our indicators and scales do not accurately describe or quantify our concepts. Fieldwork, in short, is vital in aligning social science concepts and measurement with the real world that we seek to study.

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What do new Turkish university campuses have to do with Trump’s Syria decision?

So by this point we all know the big news on Syria. Overnight, Trump announced that–after consulting with Turkish President Erdogan–the US would be pulling troops out of north Syria, giving Turkey freedom to operate. This would likely involve military actions against Kurdish forces there, which Turkey fears are coordinating with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. This is concerning for two reasons. First, the United States had worked with these Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, so we’re basically abandoning them. Second, this will basically leave ISIS detention camps unguarded, possibly letting this terrorist organization regroup.

A lot has been said on Twitter and elsewhere. This will hurt US credibility. We shouldn’t have open-ended commitments in the Middle East, but this isn’t the way to stop them. This is no way to treat our allies. I encourage you to read others’ takes, and I’m not going to pretend these insights are original to me (but you could read my thread if you want).

But I did start thinking about what Turkey is hoping to accomplish. They’re framing this as a security issue; they want to uproot forces supporting insurgents in their territory. That is understandable, even if we don’t like abandoning Syria’s Kurds. But there are indications this is part of a broader push to increase Turkey’s regional influence.

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If you mention the evangelical delegation to Saudi Arabia, I’d have to ask which one

The other day, Emily McFarlan Miller–a journalist with Religion News Service–noted a sense of deja vu. The AP had an article on a delegation of US evangelicals who travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s Crown Prince (and effective ruler). The deja vu was because there was a similar delegation–with some of the same individuals–last year, which she wrote about at the time. These repeated visits, and the visitors’ response to the conservative Islamic Kingdom, are surprising, and may represent a shift in how evangelical elites view Saudi Arabia.

The 2018 visit took place shortly after the (technically) alleged (but, come on) assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, and was led by a US man who’d previously praised MbS as a sincere reformer. Noteworthy individuals on the trip included former Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s top evangelical advisers and a recent appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. After returning, he praised MbS’ reforms and “support for moderate Muslim rule.”

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Israel’s Un-Machiavellian Prince

This is a guest post from Ben-zion Telefus. He holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University (2015), where he researched the war on drugs in the US and the EU foreign and security policies. Follow him on Twitter @BenzionTelefus

When Israelis vote in the coming September 17th re-run elections the issue on the ballot will remain the same: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political and legal future. Netanyahu’s control over Israel for the past decade led many to describe him as a sophisticated “Machiavellian” politician who mastered every available means to ensure his political power. Yet using the term “Machiavellian” to describe Netanyahu is an injustice to Machiavelli’s political thought and creates a misleading portrait of Netanyahu, who is anything but the prince Machiavelli envisioned.

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US should support environmental peacebuilding and humanitarian efforts for Palestinians

This is a guest post from Erika Weinthal, a Professor at Duke University and Jeannie Sowers, an Associate Professor at the University of New Hampshire

What is often referred to as environmental peacebuilding – the process of governing and leveraging the use of the environment and natural resources for building a sustainable peace through improving livelihoods, strengthening the economy, rebuilding trust, and fostering cooperation – has been a core component of US-supported projects in Israel and Palestine.

As part of the US government strategy to promote a two-state solution in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Peace Process, all US administrations until the most recent have provided economic and security assistance to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Palestinian civil society.  This assistance was always dwarfed by the military and economic assistance provided by the US to Israel, but nevertheless was an important component in supporting Palestinian civil society and human welfare.

US-supported projects included scientific exchanges through USAID’s Middle East Regional Cooperation program and support for regional NGOs like EcoPeace Middle East, which sought to build a peace park in the Jordan River basin and create dialogue among local mayors on both sides of the Jordan River. Most importantly, the US was the single largest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which runs schools, health clinics, social services, and infrastructure projects for 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 

The last two years of the Trump administration have, however, cemented the loss of US credibility in mediating the conflict between Israel and Palestine. There are no shortages of key moments, but the most notable include the administration’s decision to move the embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017, the elimination of all funding to UNRWA in late 2018, the cessation of development assistance to the Palestinian people in early 2019, and the US Ambassador to Israel taking a hammer to break ground in a tunnel in occupied East Jerusalem in June 2019.  

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Understanding Israel

This is a guest post from Brent Sasley, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He tweets at @besasley.

Israel holds a prominent place in the American popular imagination. It’s a major source of news reports, as well as an increasingly partisan issue in American electoral politics. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that American journalists and western journalists more generally seek out American and western analysts and academics for commentary on Israeli politics, such as the recent election.

On Twitter I suggested that western journalists look beyond western academics and analysts for insight into the Israeli election results, and in particular toward women, Arab, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian specialists. Someone then suggested that I compile a list for journalists to access, since most of these scholars and analysts are not likely to be known to western reporters. Below is a list I’ve put together that I hope can be useful. It is surely not a complete list, and the boundaries between the categories are not hard and fast; an analyst of Palestinian-Israeli politics can of course provide effective commentary on Israeli politics more broadly.

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Pakistan’s Proxies: Rising Costs, Uncertain Benefits

This is a guest post from Adnan Naseemullah from is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, King’s College London, and the author of Development after Statism (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Indian airstrikes near Balakot inside the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on the 26th of February, and Pakistani airstrikes in response, have created anxiety because nuclear conflict lies at the end of a steep escalation ladder. India was retaliating against a Valentine’s Day suicide attack on a convoy of paramilitary forces in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir, in which 42 were killed.

Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM), one of several Pakistan-based militant groups operating against the Indian state in Kashmir, claimed responsibility. Indian retaliation targeted a madrassa thought to affiliated to JeM in Pakistan. India’s position is that because groups like JeM are proxies of the Pakistani state, crossborder strikes are justified as a means of preemptive self-defense combatting terrorism. 

This dynamic highlights both the uses and hazards of proxies as a tool of crossborder coercive statecraft. It follows a long and ignominious tradition of the use of proxies to weaken strategic competitors that has recent roots in Cold War competition, and has been used by both India and Pakistan. I argue that Pakistan’s use of proxies is becoming increasingly counterproductive as a tool for enhancing its own security by diminishing its neighbor’s, even as recent Indian policies toward Kashmir have created an environment hospitable for these proxies.

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The Politics of Embarrassment: Brand Failure in Canadian Foreign Policy

This is a guest post from Eric Van Rythoven. Eric Van Rythoven recently finished his PhD at Carleton University studying emotion, world politics, and security. His work is published in Security Dialogue and European Journal of International Relations.

The Trudeau government is in crisis.  Yesterday morning Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s former Attorney General recently demoted to Minister of Veterans Affairs, resigned from cabinet.  The resignation comes on the heels of a Globe and Mail report that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office allegedly attempted to influence Wilson-Raybould in her decision to prosecute SNC Lavalin. 

A politically connected and influential engineering firm based in Quebec, SNC Lavalin is currently mired in charges of fraud and bribery in relation to its work in Libya.  As recently as Monday night Trudeau expressed “full confidence” in Wilson-Raybould, saying that her continuing presence in cabinet “should speak for itself”.

By itself the allegation of political interference in a criminal prosecution has the potential to be a major domestic scandal.  But this scandal could come with serious international repercussions, especially given Canada’s increasingly troubled relationship with China.  To understand why, we need to step back and think about the role of brand failure in the politics of embarrassment.

How states manage their public image is a longstanding concern of International Relations.  During the Cold War competitive behaviour was commonly attributed to a desire for status and prestige (Jervis, Gilpin).  Following 9/11 interest in ‘public diplomacy’ surged as Western countries sought to rehabilitate their public image in the Middle East through cultural outreach and savvy social media (Gilboa, Snow & Taylor). 

This literature overlaps with a broader interest in ‘national branding’ and ‘brand command’ focused on how states manage their public image in an increasingly informationally-dense environment (Potter, Marland).  One could also add to this list the study of international activists using naming and shaming tactics to pressure governments on human rights (Hafner-Burton, Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink).

While these literatures are certainly useful, they can also lead to an overly optimistic view of image management.  What’s missing here are how attempts to craft a positive public image are often marred by struggle, ineptitude, and occasionally failure.  For Irving Goffman it’s precisely these situations when an actor presents conflicting public images that moments of embarrassment begin to emerge.  More than a hypocritical mismatch between words and deeds, or the shame of failing to abide by one’s moral ideals, embarrassment is most evident when an imagined competency is never delivered. 

When embarrassment occurs, Goffman recognized that some audiences would be merciful and help the embarrassed party conceal their failures.  Others, however, would exploit cracks in a fractured public image for gain.  The latter would lead to a struggle to regain and maintain composure over self-image—what we can call the ‘politics of embarrassment’.  Embarrassed parties and their allies look repair or minimize the apparent damage; political opponents look to make the embarrassment all the more pronounced. 

We can think of the dynamics of embarrassment as a play in three acts: the brand, the break, and the blame.  The ‘brand’ refers to a period of branding repertoires which projects a distinct image of competency.  The ‘break’ captures the period where a previous public image, and the competency it promises, comes into question through moments of off-brand behaviour.  The ‘blame’ comes when a break becomes apparent and actors formulate strategies to respond.  Here is when we can see various composure strategies, such as denial or deflection, are employed by the embarrassed subject and their allies to repair their public image.  By contrast, discrediting strategies, such as sensationalizing, are employed by political opponents and aim to widen and deepen the appearance of a break.  When taken together the brand, the break, and the blame capture how the politics of embarrassment represents a struggle to regain and maintain composure over self-image.

The Brand

Why does this matter for Canada?  Because the Trudeau government has worked very hard to project a specific brand rooted in respecting the rule of law.  As Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland argued in her signature June 2017 foreign policy speech: “…our values include an unshakeable commitment to pluralism, human rights and the rule of law.”

Freeland is not alone in this branding exercise.  Trudeau himself regularly cites the rule of law whether in discussing the shared values of the Commonwealth, in speeches at the UN, and even in pipeline decisions.

Last December this messaging took on a new urgency as Canada became involved in a serious diplomatic dispute with China.  At the request of the United States government Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese flagship technology company Huawei, while she was traveling through Vancouver.  With the extradition of Wanzhou to the United States pending, the Chinese government has exerted immense diplomatic pressure and retaliated by arbitrarily detaining two Canadians and revising the criminal sentence for a third Canadian to the death penalty.  Throughout the dispute Trudeau has steadfastly maintained that Canada values an independent judiciary and the rule of law.  He even went so far as to criticize China for arbitrarily revising the third Canadian’s criminal sentence to the death penalty.

The Break

Yet now the Trudeau government’s rule-of-law brand appears to be suffering a decisive break.  The first signs of the break came when the Canadian Ambassador to China interfered in the Wanzhou case by suggesting Chinese-language media that she had a strong case against extradition.  Citing President Trump’s comments on using Wanzhou’s case as a bargaining chip in ongoing US-China trade negotiations, McCallum made the case that Trump may have unfairly politicized the process.  McCallum’s assessment about Trump may prove true, but it’s not the place for an Ambassador to weigh in on legal disputes unfolding in an independent judiciary.  McCallum was fired to protect the rule-of-law brand.

The break only deepened on news of allegations that someone from the Prime Minister’s Office allegedly attempted to influence Wilson-Raybould in her decision to prosecute SNC Lavalin.  And although the SNC Lavalin and Wanzhou cases are unrelated, they both signal moments of off-brand behaviour where the Trudeau government failed to deliver on its promised commitment to the rule of law.

The Blame

What this leaves is the question of the blame.  We can already see composure strategies aimed at steadying the government’s image: McCallum’s firing sent a clear signal that he was off message, and Trudeau himself has denied his office directed the Attorney General in any prosecutorial decisions (though the clarity of this denial is in dispute).  These are complemented by a range of discrediting strategies ranging from modest proposals for an ethics investigation to the more sensationalist declarations of a “coverup” by the Trudeau government.  The efficacy of these strategies, including what they reveal and conceal, will determine the severity of the break in the government’s public image and how long it lasts.  Both of these are crucial questions given the looming Federal election in the Fall of 2019.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson we can take from this moment of crisis is that political branding is never a risk-free proposition.  Off-brand behaviour at home can have effects on foreign relations abroad.  As one columnist recently noted, after the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair “China might be right to wonder if Canadian justice can be bought”.  When the fragile tethers of a public image begin to slip, other states may be right to question who we really are.

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Hey, NYT, we need to talk.

I know, democracy dies in darkness (sorry, WashPo put it better) and we need good journalism, but what you publish in the Opinion Section often does not qualify as journalism, like, at all. I am not even talking about “Intellectual Dark Web” (which is neither intellectual, nor dark, but maybe web) or blatant climate denialism; you seriously need a Russia bullshit detector. Because so far, Russia articles are mostly botched Cyrillic wrapped in a cliché inside an Orientalist talking point.

The latest “scary Putin/racist nonsense/KGB/italicized Russian words” piece grazed your pages yesterday and it already caused the Russia Twitter to eye roll off our couches. For starters, who knew that there is a Russian word for “lies”. Like, really. If you actually spent time in St. Petersburg or Moscow (because those authors never go further out in fear of bears and balalaikas) you would know that “vranyo” is hardly a word that would ever be used in the context of whatever “active measures” you are talking about. Which are, by the way, not a thing, as well as the “Gerasimov doctrine”.

So, what’s with the “corruption DNA”, people? Last time I checked, 23andMe doesn’t offer a breakdown on social vices. When the author talked to Volodya back in the 90s, did he also take some of his genetic material? Or tested every single Russian out there? Who counts as a Russian? Just the Russian-speakers or the ones who live in Russia proper? Do you get the corruption DNA if you have a baby with a Western person? So many questions, and, sadly, no bigotry-free responses.

And what’s with the menacing pictures of Putin? At least when I write my posts I preface them with some presidential wardrobe malfunction action, aka the executive nipples. Yes, Putin is watching you, but so is PRISM and that one has way more capabilities and potential for abuse than its Russian analogue. So, Volodya (at least, it’s not Vlad) was fine when he helped you get rich and had beer with you in the 90s but not anymore? As Maxim Edwards remarked, it’s unclear why the contingent of “I made a killing in the nineties and then it went to shit” still needs to be heard. Even though there are a couple of valid points in the piece, they are overshadowed by racism and conceit of a “civilized” Western man braving the borderless wasteland that is Russia and trying to advertise his company that “recovers assets”.

I have to wrap this up before my head explodes from the uncontrollable rage at the stupidity and arrogance of some of your contributors. Do better next time.
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The Importance of Recognition in Venezuela

This is a guest post from Elsy Gonzalez, a PhD candidate from the University of Chicago in the Department of Political Science.

Last Wednesday, January 23, President Trump recognized Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Through this statement, Trump ultimately rejected Nicolas Maduro’s government and hedged his bet on regime change in this South American country. While this behavior is hardly surprising given the recent animosity between Washington and Caracas, many other countries in the region and around the world flocked to support Guaidó as president shortly thereafter. Those that recognized are as interesting as those that have not, and their timing speaks volumes.

What is the background? On May 20, 2018, Venezuela held presidential elections in which Maduro declared himself victorious for a new six-year term amidst a flurry of international condemnation, for what has been deemed a fraudulent election. The following day, the countries that make up the Lima Group declared they did not recognize the legitimacy of the electoral process for not abiding by the international standards of a democratic, free, fair, and transparent election. Following months of uncertainty and domestic turmoil, incumbent Nicolas Maduro assumed power for his new term on January 10. Meanwhile, Juan Guiadó also assumed power as head of the National Assembly, and the group later declared him interim president in lieu of Maduro.

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Under Pressure

Somewhat cranky and slightly under the weather Putin graced the foreign journalists with his presence for almost 4 hours. Starting right off the bat with some optimistic economic indicators (that he used to be able to juggle without any papers), the conference progressed with its predictable pace and predictable plot points: a bunch of questions on economy, token booed Ukrainian question, some dad jokes and good tsar, bad boyars excuses. There was no panache, pizazz or punch. Putin is tired (at some point he was off by 20 million when talking about the Russian population) and his whataboutist rhetoric expected. His cough has got better since last year though.

At the beginning, Channel One gleefully pointed out that all accredited journalists are welcome at the press-conference (not really) and there are absolutely no restrictions. Press Secretary Peskov started with the Kremlin press pool soft ball questions (as though they don’t get enough access to the body of the sovereign on a regular basis). Crimea came up almost right away and kept coming up throughout the press conference. Putin got himself some rally-around-the flag theory ready and angrily pointed out that the only reason there was a “provocation” in the Kerch Strait is because presidential elections are coming up and President Poroshenko was looking to boost his failing rating. Moreover, Russia will increase its military presence in the Azov Sea the way it sees fit, especially given that some governmental officials in Ukraine are threatening to blow up the pained Crimea bridge. Putin forcefully denied that an “annexation” of the peninsula took place (despite having used that word himself several days prior). It was the citizens who came and voted to re-unite with Russia and now they are being punished for their vote by Western sanctions.

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Aid and Diplomacy, Not Tear Gas: How to Address the Central American Migrant Crisis

On Sunday, the US Border Patrol fired tear gas into Mexico at migrants, including children, attempting to enter the US near the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. The use of a chemical weapon banned in war against families rightly provoked widespread condemnation (Border Patrol agents also used pepper spray against migrants in 2013, fired tear gas and pepper spray into Mexico in 2007, and have killed rock throwers at the border in the past). Migrants attempting to enter the US are frustrated by the Trump administration’s restriction of the process of seeking asylum, a legal right under US and international law, a situation that won’t be solved by processing asylum seekers on Mexican soil.

Most of those who attempted to scale the border fence were reportedly from Honduras, the country with the world’s second-highest homicide rate. Young people there are caught between murderous gangs, violent and corrupt police, and paramilitary ‘social cleansing’ squads who target young men, while gender-based violence rates are also high. There are similar, if slightly less violent, dynamics in El Salvador and Guatemala, and increasing state repression in Nicaragua. Despite changes in US immigration policy and enforcement under the Trump administration, the US remains for many Central Americans a place of hope for a better, more secure life.

In this environment, deterrence efforts will have limited effectiveness. Continue reading

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What the UAE’s detention of a UK graduate student means for Middle East studies

I feel like I should say something about the disappearance—and likely assassination—of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. This tragedy was enabled by America’s permissive stance towards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US support for other horrific Saudi policies (like its bombing of Yemen). I’ve expressed concern on Twitter and in personal conversations, and have been writing about Yemen for years.

But to be honest, I don’t think I have anything new to say at this point. Most Duck readers will already know, and be upset, about this situation. Instead, I want to raise another concerning human rights abuse by one of our Persian Gulf allies: the detention of UK graduate student Matthew Hedges by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A few months ago, reports spread of a UK man detained in the UAE on espionage charges; he was rumored to be an academic doing research in the country. These reports were later confirmed as the UAE announced it had charged Hedges with espionage for trying to obtain classified information and gain access to confidential archives. Hedges is a PhD student at the University of Durham, and was studying the UAE’s post-Arab Spring foreign policy. He has been held in rough conditions and there are concerns about his physical and mental health. Continue reading

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Peacekeeping’s Perverse Effects: Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Remilitarized Politics

In under two weeks, Brazil will have the second round of its presidential election. Former military officer and fan of fascists Jair Bolsonaro looks set after a strong first-round showing to defeat Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. If he wins, Bolsonaro will have strong party backing in Congress, though he does not care much for the legislature—in 1999, Bolsonaro said Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship “should have killed 30,000 people more, starting with Congress and [then-President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” Bolsonaro’s running mate is retired General Hamilton Mourão, his planning adviser and likely Minister of Transport is General Oswaldo Ferreira, an anti-environmentalist who looks for inspiration to infrastructure projects enacted by Brazil’s military government, and Bolsonaro has promised to stack his cabinet with generals. Current and retired military officers have been prominent backers of Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro announced that he would not accept any result other than victory, menacingly saying “I cannot speak for military” but that there “could be a reaction by the Armed Forces” if he lost and deemed it due to PT fraud (never mind that the PT is not currently in power).

As Michael Albertus highlighted, the military is returning to Brazilian politics in a big way. While the military in Argentina was punished for its dictatorial Dirty War, elites with ties to dictatorship never faced sanctions or fully left the political scene in countries like Brazil and Chile. In Brazil, civilian leaders managed to weaken the military during the transition to democracy, but it retained a broad scope of activities, including internal security and development, especially in combating the drug trade, a mission with which current President Michel Temer tasked the military earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro spent his time as a representative in Congress “interested in helping the military above all else,” and his message that he will restore law and order both resonates with a Brazilian public fed up with high rates of violent crime and with a military keen to reassert itself. Continue reading

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What’s in a Name? Developing Countries and Security Cooperation

This post comes from Dr. Fabiana Sofia Perera, Assistant Research Fellow at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and a 2016 alumna of Bridging the Gap’s New Era Workshop.

Defense Secretaries from the countries of the western hemisphere will convene in Cancun, Mexico next month to talk about the most pressing issues facing defense and security institutions in the Americas. The biannual meeting presents an important opportunity for the US to engage with Latin America as the hemisphere continues to try to work together to address the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and other challenges. After the underwhelming Summit of the Americas, defense seems like a promising avenue for cooperation. Secretary Mattis already met with a number of his counterparts during his first trip to the region in August promising a closer relationship between the US and Latin America.

Security cooperation between the US and Latin America, however, faces one important obstacle: the definition of developing country. Though scholars think of the region as part of the developing world (studies of Latin American countries are routinely featured in journals and conferences focusing on development), most countries in the hemisphere are middle income. Trinidad and Tobago, and Estonia, for example, have about the same GDP per capita; Uruguay is nearly on par with Croatia; Costa Rica and China are within a few dollars of each other. This is where the US runs into difficulties for carrying out cooperation activities.

US Code, Title 10, Section 312 provides that security cooperation money “may be used only for the payment of expenses of, and special compensation for, personnel from developing countries.” US Code further stipulates that the term “developing country” “has the meaning prescribed by the Secretary of Defense [in] the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.” The current iteration of that meaning is that countries are considered “developing” if they are not “high income” on the World Bank classification of countries. Argentina, Barbados, Chile, and Trinidad and Tobago are all “high income” this year.

The World Bank’s definition is not the only option, and may not be the best one for US purposes.  Continue reading

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Take Me to Church

There is a spat of ecumenical proportions brewing in the Eastern hemisphere: Patriarch Krill of Russia stopped praying for the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The reason for that is simple: the patriarch of Constantinople is rumored to consider granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church an autocephalous status that would potentially carve out a third of Russian Orthodox Church curacies  severely damaging Moscow’s status as the third Rome* not to mention financial repercussions.

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Babies R Us

While in the US children are being separated from their parents seeking political asylum and taken to a Walmart prison, some Russian lawmakers are concerned that illegal aliens can enter the country through its citizens’ vaginas during the FIFA World Cup that starts today.

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