It's been a week for the record books for US President Donald J. Trump. A federal judge demolished his last remaining defence for not handing over his tax returns, Trump's personal lawyer was dragged further into the Ukraine morass, and his energy secretary was subpoenaed by the looming impeachment investigation. But for all these developments, the only people to take notice will be Beltway insiders, columnists, and those unfortunate readers for whom Trump updates are the primary ingredient in their news diet.
That doesn't mean that the events of the week didn't matter. One event that did matter, a lot, was the phone call in which Trump gave Turkey permission to invade northern Syria. The president, for whom America's presence in Syria has never sat well, ordered a staged withdrawal of his troops from the short-lived 'buffer' on the Turkish border. Trump stated in no uncertain terms (read: in all caps, via Twitter) that American intervention in the Middle East was a terrible mistake – one that he intended to rectify.
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The Pentagon, State Department and a squadron of congressional Republicans lambasted Trump's move, leaving him agog at the ensuing hullabaloo. Wasn't he just removing a measly 50 combat troops from the border area? Trump's reaction demonstrated a keen appreciation for the size of things, but a tenuous grasp on his so-called 'art of the deal'. The presence of those few dozen U.S. soldiers had deterred Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from fulfilling his desire to annihilate Syria's Kurdish population. This desire is usually justified by Ankara on the basis of links between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) and the terror-listed Turkish Kurds. But below that, there is a deeper impulse for Erdogan to re-establish Turkey's prestige in the region by dominating its enemies and expanding its possessions.
Now, Ankara has a green light to go for the throat. Unsurprisingly Turkish militias (comprising ex-jihadists) are already advancing on the Kurdish canton of Rojava under the cover of Turkish jets and artillery. Dozens, possibly hundreds, have already been killed in fierce fighting, and 60,000 have fled the front line. And so we are witnessing the complete and unequivocal American betrayal of a group that – without exaggeration – did all the heavy lifting in the war against ISIS. Well over 10,000 Kurdish (and allied) lives were sacrificed in the brutal years-long campaign to beat ISIS into submission. Right now the whole region of Rojava is on knife-edge: the SDF has begun repositioning its forces to defend their hard-won homeland from Turkey's cutthroats.
Trump's latest (and perhaps his largest) misstep poses several catastrophic risks. The first is the threat of an ISIS resurgence. The SDF has ceased its critical operations against ISIS sleeper cells in order to face the more pressing threat they must now contend with. They may also have to leave the sprawling al-Hawl refugee camp – and the 12,000 ISIS fighters imprisoned there – undefended. The risk of a mass break-out is real. Trump insisted that Erdogan would take over the administration of the detention facility, but Turkey's foreign minister has flatly contradicted that. The Europeans appear to have a keener understanding of both the moral calculus and the security situation involved. EU leaders have sharply criticised Erdogan's move. His response? Shut up , unless they want Turkey to reopen refugee routes into Europe.
A question of influence
What does America owe a region that it helped set alight? This is not a rhetorical question. The moral and strategic challenges posed by American intervention are many. If America is to have a military presence in (at last count) 150 countries around the world, what are its responsibilities? And once damage has been done, what does it owe the victims? Iraq today is less functional than it was before the U.S. invasion – the hundred dead and 6,000 injured protesters from just the past week's violence in Baghdad should leave little doubt about that. The task of managing these vexed situations was once the purview of State Department officials. These days a phone call is made to the White House, and a world-altering foreign policy shift is announced on Twitter. If Twitter was serious about reducing the very real harm it is contributing to, one particular Twitter account would be a very good place to start.
And what of its allies? What does America owe them? In one of his less lucid moments Trump questioned why he should help a group that had not supported the Allied landing at Normandy during the Second World War. It was not only a ludicrous comment, it was also historically inaccurate. As a reporter pointed out immediately, the Kurds had in fact fought on behalf of the Allies in WW2: they put down a pro-Nazi attempted coup in Iraq.
America, under Trump, is charging down a worrying road - alienating its friends, destroying its good name, ceding its leadership (and moral authority), and seeding new enemies.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was won by a trio of researchers – Gregg Semenza, Peter Ratcliffe and William Kaelin – who took our understanding of the human body's relationship with oxygen to a molecular level. Their findings revealed how a gene known as EPO helps regulate the body in low-oxygen environments, and how most cells in the body are oxygen sensitive. They were the first three to receive their phone calls from the Nobel Assembly.Next up, on Tuesday, was the announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. James Peebles of Princeton University claimed half the prize for his tireless efforts in detecting and measuring radiation left over from the Big Bang. The other half of the prize went to a pair of exo-planet hunters – Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz – who created a device to gauge whether distant stars 'wobbled' due to the gravity of orbiting planets. Another three men (and it is nearly always men) will share this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their role in creating something that you are almost certainly using right now: a lithium-ion battery. John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino will share the laureate-status and prize money for respectively inventing, bettering and perfecting this tiny and crucial device. After last year's sexual misconduct scandal, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature was delayed for a year. Poland's most-gifted living novelist, Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize, while Austrian playwright Peter Handke claimed the current accolade. The committee obviously didn't mind courting a touch more controversy by handing the gong to Handke, an avowed apologist of Serbia's actions in the Balkan wars.
Once again central London was centre stage for climate change protests. We say centre stage because it was truly a dramatic affair: 1,100 arrests were made when activists blocked major thoroughfares and prevented an aircraft from taking off at City Airport. But while Greta Thunberg's School Strike for the Climate helped capture the imagination of children everywhere, these Extinction Rebellion (XR) demonstrations draw heavily from the professional classes. Doctors, lawyers, financiers – white-collar workers are taking part in action that has been written off by the conservative press as the plaything of idle children and hippies.
The interest from the professional classes couldn't come soon enough. Their hands are closer to the levers of power. They may not work directly for the 20 companies that have contributed 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions. They might not even have controlling stakes in the oil companies that are planning on pumping an extra 7 million barrels of oil per day over the next decade. But they are still in positions of leadership in organisations where they can insist on doing better, and therefore create more leverage than, say, the average striking school child. More of this.
The Energy Observer – the world's first hydrogen-powered ship – sailed up the Thames this week to cap off a six-year and nearly 30,000 kilometre journey around the world. With zero emissions . A ship that creates its own fuel from sea-water, with backup power from renewables; truly a vessel for the future.
The great green wall of IndiaFaced with an encroaching desert from the West, India's government is planning a vast (and we mean vast) re-wilding project. If completed, a dense green corridor some 5 kilometres wide will run from from Panipat, north of Delhi, to Gujarat. A 1,400 kilometre long wall to regenerate the north-west of the country. An incredible feat.
It's been revealed that Chinese authorities are forcing Uighur women in Xinjiang province to undergo forced abortions. Beijing has been intent on separating families from their children to eradicate the Uighur muslim identity, but this effort now appears to have been intensified through new measures to prevent another generation of Uighurs from even being born. Women have also reported that medical staff have implanted contraceptive devices in their bodies against their wishes.
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China is intent on adding insult to injury. Or, without relying on idioms, China is intent on inflicting psychological trauma upon an already subjugated people. It is doing so by demolishing the burial sites of Uighur communities, leaving them a mess of turned-over rubble and bones, or pouring cement over them to create carparks. Entirely indefensible and abhorrent behaviour.
"I still can't believe this is going to happen because after all these years of working in this field, watching everything on television, now I can experience everything in person."
– Iranian football journalist Raha Poorbakhsh is elated that she will finally be able to watch the World Cup qualifying match against Cambodia after authorities relented to FIFA's demands. About bloody time.
Tesla's Autopilot Could Save the Lives of Millions, But It Will Kill Some People First.
– Bloomberg Businessweek. This is no mere Headline Of The Year contender: it's the best article on the ethics and hard realities of autonomous vehicles that we've come across.This week's special mention goes to the European rugby fans in Japan who've expressed discontent with the decision to abandon several games this weekend. Apparently the approach of Super Typhoon Hagibis – a storm system with winds of up to 215 kilometres per hour – and the attendant threat of death is not reason enough to cancel a good game of oval ball. Some choice long-reads
The Economist ponders why inflation doesn't follow the rules anymore
Financial Times reveals that Hunter Biden is up to his neck in it
Foreign Policy shines a light on the refugees that the UN abandoned
EDITOR'S NOTE: We've heaped praise on the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho before in this column. His works rise to the level of 'serious' films without ever losing their humour, but we never thought to applaud the accuracy of his speculative fiction. Anyone familiar with Okja (2017) would've gasped this week upon learning that Chinese farmers are breeding pigs the size of polar bears to combat pork shortages. Just wait til they learn how to use tools, as these clever piggies recently have... Tom Wharton