23 July 2019   Leave a comment

The British Conservative Party has selected Boris Johnson to be the next Prime Minister. Johnson has pushed the British exit from the European Union (“Brexit”) very hard and has promised to bring about that action by 29 October 2019. The decision was one favored by US President Trump, and many have compared the two politicians. I think that the comparison is superficially valid–Business Insider has a long list of controversial comments–but I also suspect that Trump and Johnson will find it difficult to work together.

Johnson will be in the middle of the US-Iranian dispute since the Iranian seized the British oil tanker, the Stena Impero. That seizure has been highlighted by the US government as evidence of the aggressiveness of the Iranian government. But the media has not emphasized that the seizure of the British oil tanker was in retaliation for the earlier British seizure off the coast of Gibraltar of a Panamanian-flagged oil tanker called the Grace I which was delivering oil to Syria. That seizure was justified because the EU has imposed an embargo on trade with Syria.

But that embargo only applies to EU countries, not to ships flying a non-EU flag. And we now know that the US had been following the Grace I ever since it sailed out of an Iranian port and that it was the US that told the British–but not Spain which also controls the waters off Gibraltar–that the ship was violating the EU embargo. The selective disclosure of relevant information was intended to make sure that the British, and not the Spanish, were involved in the dispute. The US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, tweeted this after the seizure of the Grace I: “Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions.”

Simon Tisdale of the Guardian interprets this sequence of events as a deliberate ploy by the US to involve the British in the US-Iranian dispute:

“Bolton’s delighted reaction suggested the seizure was a surprise. But accumulating evidence suggests the opposite is true, and that Bolton’s national security team was directly involved in manufacturing the Gibraltar incident. The suspicion is that Conservative politicians, distracted by picking a new prime minister, jockeying for power, and preoccupied with Brexit, stumbled into an American trap.”

Tisdale goes further:

“In short, it seems, Britain was set up.

“The consequences of the Gibraltar affair are only now becoming clear. The seizure of Grace I led directly to Friday’s capture by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of a British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. Although it has not made an explicit link, Iran had previously vowed to retaliate for Britain’s Gibraltar “piracy”. Now it has its revenge.

“As a result, Britain has been plunged into the middle of an international crisis it is ill-prepared to deal with. The timing could hardly be worse. An untested prime minister, presumably Boris Johnson, will enter Downing Street this week. Britain is on the brink of a disorderly exit from the EU, alienating its closest European partners. And its relationship with Trump’s America is uniquely strained.

“Much of this angst could have been avoided. Britain opposed Trump’s decision to quit the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the trigger for today’s crisis. It has watched with alarm as the Trump-Bolton policy of ‘maximum pressure’, involving punitive sanctions and an oil embargo, has radicalised the most moderate Iranians.

“Yet even as Britain backed EU attempts to rescue the nuclear deal, Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, tried to have it both ways – to keep Trump sweet. They publicly supported Washington’s complaints about Iran’s ‘destabilising’ regional activities and missile programme, and berated Iran when it bypassed agreed nuclear curbs.

If push comes to shove between the US and Iran, it will be interesting to see whether Johnson decides to support the US militarily or whether he decides to support the EU efforts to preserve the JCPOA. I suspect that the US will be the first place a new Prime Minister Johnson will visit.

There are some things said in world politics that I find mind-boggling. Yesterday, in a press conference before his meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, US President Trump made this comment about the US strategy in Afghanistan where the US has been intervening militarily since 2001:

“I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves.  We’re like policemen.  We’re not fighting the war.  If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week.  I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.  Does that make sense to you?  I don’t want to kill 10 million people.

“I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth.  It would be gone.  It would be over in — literally, in 10 days.  And I don’t want to do — I don’t want to go that route.”

The idea that winning a war could include wiping the defended country off the “face of the Earth” is both bizarre and criminal. But there was another exchange in that press conference which was also stunning:

“PRESIDENT TRUMP:  So I was with — I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about this subject.  And he actually said, “Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?”  I said, “Where?”  He said, “Kashmir.”  Because this has been going on for many, many years.  I was surprised at how long; it’s been going on a long —

“PRIME MINISTER KHAN:  Seventy years.

“PRESIDENT TRUMP:  And I think they’d like to see it resolved.  And I think you’d like to see it resolved.  And if I can help, I would love to be a mediator.  It shouldn’t be — I mean, it’s impossible to believe two incredible countries that are very, very smart, with very smart leadership, can’t solve a problem like that.  But if you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do that.”

The Pakistanis might be willing to accept US mediation over Kashmir, but India would (and did) reject the idea out of hand. The Council on Foreign Relations issued a brief analysis which pointed out that the idea was fanciful: ” Not surprisingly, the Indian government responded promptly with a blunt repudiation of this claim. The official spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs tweeted: ‘No such request has been made by PM @narendramodi to US President [sic]. It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism…’” 

South Korea fighter planes fired on Russia planes that South Korea said violated its air defense identification zone (ADIZ). There were actually two incursions, one just by Russian planes and another with both Russian and Chinese planes. An air defense identification zone is not something that is defined in international law and it has no legal basis in international law. But it is a zone that some states use to identify airplanes that fly within 200 miles of national territory. The US and Canada have such zones as do the Chinese. The Russians, however, do not acknowledge these zones.

The exchange of fire was intense, a very unusual response, with the South Koreans firing 360 rounds toward the Russian planes. The fact that the South Koreans were willing to specify the number of rounds indicates that they were very serious about the incursion.

The flights were also controversial because they overflew disputed territory, islands claimed by both Korea and Japan. Korea calls them the Dokdo Islands and the Japanese call them the Takeshima Islands (they are also know as Liancourt Rocks, named by French whalers in 1849). The incident is thus a test of strength involving the South Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Japanese. The possibilities for misunderstanding and cross-purposes were thus quite large and dangerous.

Posted July 23, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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