The Week in Blob

US attacks ally! North Korea attacks water! Blobster’s funding revealed!

  • Taking a strikingly antagonistic stance toward an ally, Secretary of State Antony Blinken threatened to impose sanctions on German companies over their involvement in construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which could start carrying natural gas from Russia to Germany this fall. The statement came as a bipartisan coalition in Congress pushed President Biden to deploy the sanctions, which he is authorized to do under a 2019 law targeting companies involved in the project. Exercising this authority now might seem odd, since the project is close enough to completion to be essentially unstoppable. But a large chunk of the foreign policy establishment thinks the pipeline will undermine European security by making Germany dependent on Russia for energy and hurting Ukraine, which will lose out on revenues from transporting gas. (Perhaps not incidentally, some American energy companies could also be hurt.) So, as Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute put it on Twitter, "For the sake of our allies, we will punish our allies for insufficiently opposing our enemies.” As you might expect, this is causing tension with Germany: A "senior Berlin official" told Politico that the sanctions could cause a “major portion" of the country's governing coalition to "[turn] against the US.” America is back!

  • In the American Prospect, Jonathan Guyer did something few political journalists do—he took a close look at the sources of funding for a Blobster who testified before Congress. Guyer's piece sheds light on how—in spite of congressional transparency rules put in place in January—think tank experts can avoid disclosing information that could cast doubt on their independence. (Spoiler: It’s not that hard.) The expert in question was Kirsten Fontenrose, who works at the Atlantic Council—a think tank that has received millions of dollars over the last few years from the United Arab Emirates, which is considered Saudi Arabia’s closest ally. The new ethics rules dictate that experts must disclose foreign payments “related to the subject matter of the hearing,” even if those payments went to their employer. But Fontenrose “sidestepped this ethics rule by writing in her forms that she represented herself, not her employer”—notwithstanding the fact that her written testimony was on Atlantic Council letterhead. Information about the Atlantic Council’s financial ties might have been useful to lawmakers as they considered her recommendation that the US should not take direct action against Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman for his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But, Guyer writes, she stole the show: "[M]embers of Congress directed most questions to Fontenrose. Her comments drowned out other experts at the hearing, who pushed for much more accountability for Saudi Arabia." (Prior to joining the Atlantic Council, Fontenrose was employed by a firm that received millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and represented Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, as a foreign agent in Washington.)

  • Saudi Arabia proposed a ceasefire in Yemen on Monday, offering to partially lift the blockade that has brought the country to the brink of famine. The Houthis—the Saudis’ main adversary in the conflict—rebuffed the offer and said that only a full lifting of the blockade would be enough to stop the fighting. In Responsible Statecraft, Annelle Sheline posits that getting a rejection from the Houthis was the point of the offer—a way of “shifting blame for ongoing hostilities to the Houthis."  On a more positive note, Saudi Arabia cleared four fuel tankers to dock in a major Houthi-held port on Wednesday. The ships are among a group of 14 such vessels that have long awaited clearance, with some sitting in the waters off Yemen for over half a year.

  • Israelis went to the polls this week for the fourth time in two years. With all the votes tallied, it is unclear whether Bibi Netanyahu, or the leader of any other party, can assemble a coalition—so Israel could see yet another election before the end of the year.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, told reporters Monday that international vaccine inequality is becoming "more grotesque every day." A quick look at the data offers a sense of what he means: Over 50 percent of vaccines distributed to date have gone to patients in "high-income countries," while low-income countries have received 0.1 percent—that’s one tenth of one percent. Tedros called this inequality "economically and epidemiologically self-defeating." We might add that this kind of global inequality can be politically self-defeating from the standpoint of rich countries like the US. By prioritizing themselves above others—even to the point of blocking an effort to suspend intellectual property protections that impede the distribution of a life-saving vaccine—affluent countries are planting the seeds of future resentment. And history shows that widespread grievances abroad can come home to roost in various ways, ranging from terrorism to just making it politically harder for foreign leaders to accommodate American interests.

  • On Tuesday, Libya's eastern governing authority followed its western counterpart and ceded power to the country's new unity government. This makes the UN-backed interim government the country's unquestioned leader and, if all goes according to plan, paves the way for a transition to democracy over the next year. In a show of support for the unity government, France announced that it will reopen its embassy in Tripoli next week.

  • In the wake of a visit to Asia by Biden administration officials in which they annoyed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by embracing the goal of a ‘nuclear-free North Korea’ rather than a ‘nuclear-free Korean peninsula,’ Kim acted, well, annoyed. Not known for his subtlety, the North Korean leader responded with a series of missile tests, including one involving ballistic missiles—a violation of international law under a UN Security Council resolution that restricts North Korean testing. Biden condemned Kim’s actions but said he remains open to diplomacy, as long as it is “conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.” Some analysts have pointed out that this framing, in which Biden conditions the start of talks on their result, is not likely to entice Kim to come to the table. In a Twitter thread, the Quincy Institute’s Jessica J. Lee argues that this is “de facto closing the door to diplomacy” and that “[m]yopically focusing on the nuclear issue without improving the overall bilateral relationship is a poor formula for success.”

Readings

  • In Inkstick, Kate Kizer suggests what the Biden administration could  do to become a "credible actor for peace" in Yemen. "If the administration truly believes there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen, it cannot continue to arm one side or fuel more conflict there," Kizer writes.

  • In the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria argues that the military is using China as an excuse to keep defense spending high.

  • In the National Interest, Bonnie Kristian questions the merits of Biden's "strange mix of pragmatism and recklessness" in regard to Russia. "At first glance, this might seem like a balanced approach of cooperation and confrontation," Kristian writes. "Yet on closer inspection, it’s risky, almost certainly unproductive, and potentially even dangerous."

  • In the American Conservative, James Carden reflects on the dangers of putting Samantha Power, a hawkish liberal internationalist, at the head of USAID.

                                                                           —Robert Wright and Connor Echols

My weekly conversation with famous frenemy Mickey Kaus can be found after 9:30 p.m. ET (give or take an hour) this evening on The Wright Show podcast feed or at bloggingheads.tv or the bloggingheads YouTube channel. And our after-podcast podcast—the Parrot Room conversation, which is available to paid subscribers and Patreon supporters—can be found around the same time by going to the NZN Substack home page—right here—and clicking on this week’s Parrot Room episode.