The Week in Blob
Chinese hackers! Hawkish Dems! Mindless sanctions!
Welcome to The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media.
Chinese hackers infiltrated India’s power grid and may have been behind a blackout in Mumbai last year, the New York Times reported this week. Such an assault would be one of the biggest cyberattacks on a power grid ever, ranking up there with Russia’s alleged turning off of Ukrainian lights for a few hours in 2015. Such an assault would also be a good reminder of the Blob’s dereliction of duty when it comes to establishing urgently needed rules of the road. Not only has the US foreign policy establishment failed to prioritize the negotiation of a treaty prohibiting cyberattacks—it has watched approvingly as the US launched such attacks, thus sabotaging hopes of establishing norms against them. Most famously, in 2010 President Obama, acting in coordination with Israel, ordered the hacking of an Iranian nuclear facility, destroying hundreds of centrifuges (even though the facility wasn’t violating Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty). This “Stuxnet” attack increased the perceived legitimacy of cyberattacks and also, as it happens, let loose computer code that has since been adopted by other actors, allegedly including Iran. So who can blame China if it did attack India? Certainly not Obama. And certainly not the Blob.
President Biden is in “no rush” to lift sanctions on Venezuela, according to an anonymous White House official quoted in a Reuters piece. This may seem surprising, since the sanctions have deepened the country’s humanitarian crisis without showing signs of achieving the goal of regime change pursued by Trump and now by Biden. But maybe the Venezuelans should consider themselves lucky, given National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s embrace in 2019 of a “doubling down” on Venezuela sanctions. The Reuters piece obligingly relays the administration’s view that US sanctions aren’t in fact to blame for the suffering of Venezuelans: “[T]he official emphasized that existing sanctions have enough special provisions to allow for humanitarian aid shipments to help Venezuelans cope with economic hardships and the COVID-19 pandemic... [but] said [President Nicolas] Maduro’s Socialist government has been ‘actively preventing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.’ ” What the piece doesn’t note is that the US Government Accountability Office has acknowledged that every humanitarian organization working with the US Agency for International Development in the country has “reported instances of banks closing their accounts or delaying or rejecting transactions due to concerns over U.S. sanctions.” Nor does the piece note the GAO’s finding that US sanctions “likely contributed to the steeper decline of the Venezuelan economy.” (In other Venezuela-related news, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Juan Guaido, whom Biden, following Trump, recognizes as the country’s interim president.)
The US wasted billions of dollars on buildings and vehicles in Afghanistan, according to a new report by an internal government watchdog. The Quincy Institute’s Matthew Petti gives a concise summary of the findings: “Of the $2.4 billion in assets that went to waste, $617.3 million were abandoned or never used, and $580.7 million were misused. More than half of the wasted assets — worth $1.78 billion — deteriorated or were destroyed.”
In Politico, Andrew Desiderio and Nahal Toosi report that hawkish Democratic Senator Bob Menendez is looking to exert significant influence over Biden’s foreign policy. Menendez—who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—has made a name as an outspoken opponent of the Iran deal and the normalization of ties with Cuba, and he has consistently favored a regime change policy in Venezuela. And he may be willing to block parts of Biden’s agenda if he doesn’t get his way on foreign policy: According to Desiderio and Toosi, some observers speculate that Biden’s recently tough line on Iran is meant “to assuage Menendez and other Iran hawks” and encourage them to confirm less hawkish nominees for foreign policy positions. Nonetheless:
Two Biden nominees for foreign policy roles faced resistance during confirmation hearings this week. Menendez joined Republican senators in grilling Wendy Sherman—Biden’s choice for second-in-command at State—over her role in the Iran nuclear deal. And he insisted that America’s stance toward Iran have bipartisan support—a stipulation that could reduce the chances of restoring the deal, given Republicans’ maximalist demands. Sherman was unwilling to defend the deal she helped negotiate, arguing instead for the elusive “better deal” that hawks demand. Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee put Colin Kahl—Biden’s nominee for the top policy role at the Pentagon—through the ringer. Much of the questioning focused on Kahl’s sometimes tribal Twitter persona, as reflected in a tweet saying that Republicans “debase themselves at the alter (sic) of Trump—they are the party of ethnic cleansing.” Another point of contention was Kahl’s role in negotiating and later defending the Iran deal.
The US backed off from its threat to censure Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency. This small yet positive move could be related to Iran’s agreeing to hold talks with the IAEA next month about past nuclear work in the country.
Biden added new sanctions on Myanmar’s military and companies it controls, hoping to increase pressure on the military junta to reverse last month’s coup. Meanwhile, the crisis intensified. Security forces reportedly killed 38 protestors on Wednesday, and regional efforts to reverse the coup stalled as a summit of Southeast Asian nations failed to reach a consensus on how to respond to the military takeover.
Ethiopia’s government is leading an ethnic cleansing campaign in the country’s Tigray region, according to an internal US government report obtained by the New York Times. The Biden administration would seem to have leverage here; Ethiopia is a US ally and the largest recipient of American aid in Sub-Saharan Africa. But so far there have been no visible results from a phone call in which Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed to end hostilities, protect civilians, and allow an international investigation. There could be more to come, though: During her confirmation hearing, Wendy Sherman said Blinken had pushed harder than initial reports indicated, telling Abiy that “the United States is not only watching, but we will take action.”
The US imposed new sanctions on Russia in response to the alleged poisoning of dissident Alexei Navalny. Officials say the sanctions, implemented under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Act, target intelligence officers as well as companies that are involved in the production of chemical agents.
In Jewish Currents, Peter Beinart argues that US policy toward the Middle East is based on the false idea that Iran is a uniquely bad actor in the region. “In the Middle East, Iran is one brutal, self-interested, middle power among others,” Beinart writes. “What distinguishes it from its adversaries is not its malevolence, but its independence from the United States.”
In Foreign Policy, Vivek Wadhwa and Tarun Wadhwa make the case that we “urgently need a global ethical consensus” on how to deal with emerging technologies like genetic engineering.
Also in Foreign Policy, Sari Bashi contends that Biden can’t claim ‘moral leadership’ while maintaining the sanctions Trump imposed on the International Criminal Court. “Restoring U.S. credibility around the world—which Biden says he will do—means resetting the United States’ relationship with the ICC, the premier body of international criminal justice,” Bashi writes.
In Responsible Statecraft, Michael T. Klare highlights the tension between Biden’s goals of fighting climate change and getting tough on China. “[T]hough he could succeed in provoking a new cold war, he won’t prevent the planet from heating up unbearably in the process,” Klare writes.
—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.