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Updated: 36 min 47 sec ago

Assassins Without Borders

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 1:41pm


Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are the latest members of a select international club.

Assassins Without Borders has roots that go back, in the modern era at least, to the policies of the Soviet Union, Chile, Israel, Bulgaria, and the United States. All of these countries share a single trait. They were willing to defy international law in order to assassinate their critics and opponents in other countries.

No fair assessment of evidence. No due process.

Just rub them out at a distance. Like Saudi Arabia had done — reportedly — to one of its domestic critics.

The Saudi regime had been unhappy about journalist Jamal Khashoggi for some time. The Washington Post columnist had previously been a regime loyalist before he decided that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had crossed a line. He decamped to the United States and began to launch long-distance attacks. The regime decided to reciprocate in kind.

Khashoggi was no obscure dissident. He knew the secrets of the regime. And he was prominently placed — both in the mainstream media and in social media with close to 2 million Twitter followers — to do maximum PR damage.

The Saudi authorities already discussed a plan to lure Khashoggi back to the country for a kangaroo trial. But when he entered the consulate in Istanbul to obtain wedding papers, Khashoggi walked into something else: interrogation, torture, and execution by a 15-person team dispatched from Riyadh.

It’s one thing for Riyadh to kill its critics through a dubious court process at home, as it did the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. That was a “sovereign” matter. It has also gotten away so far with killing thousands of Yemenis, with U.S. assistance. But Yemen is about as poor and obscure as a country can be these days.

Assassinating a well-known journalist with lots of high-placed friends in the United States: now that’s a risky move.

Even the Trump administration has had to pretend to take this matter very seriously, although Trump himself has suggested that maybe it was a rogue band of killers that somehow broke into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to do the job and that, as with Brett Kavanaugh, everyone is innocent until proven guilty (except for Khashoggi, of course, who was declared guilty and executed without any proof of guilt offered).

State-sponsored assassination is a ruthless gamble. But other countries have gotten away with it. No doubt that Saudi Arabia expects that the tempest will blow over, and the world will once again flock to Riyadh in pursuit of oil, investments, and geopolitical intrigue.

After all, that’s what has happened with North Korea. In the absence of oil, nuclear weapons will do in a pinch if a regime needs international exoneration.

North Korea and Russia

Last year, the Kim Jong Un regime sent agents to Malaysia to take out Kim Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s older half-brother. These agents in turn hired Indonesian and Vietnamese accomplices, who say that they thought it was a prank for reality TV, to apply in succession the components of VX nerve agent to the hapless brother. He died on the way to the hospital. According to South Korean intelligence, from the moment he took control of the country, Kim Jong Un wanted his brother dead. It took him six years to accomplish the task.

There was global outrage at the assassination. The two women accomplices are on trial in Malaysia, still declaring their innocence. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, is meeting with world leaders, like Moon Jae-in in South Korea and Donald Trump in Singapore. He might even share a Nobel peace prize if he plays his cards right.

Saudi Arabia no doubt took careful notes.

Russia has been more aggressive in its pursuit of critics. Russian agents used polonium to poison and kill former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. It employed a nerve agent in an attempt to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, an attack that even Donald Trump now acknowledges was likely a Kremlin plot. Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza has fallen deathly ill twice from poisonings, both on trips back to Russia.

But Putin doesn’t believe in just killing one person as a warning. He does everything to excess. Consider Mikhail Lesin, the founder of the Russia Today network. He was about to spill the beans to the FBI in Washington, DC in 2015 when he was discovered, just before the scheduled interview, dead in his hotel room. Initially, DC police attributed the death to a drunken fall down stairs. But FBI agents believe that he was actually bludgeoned to death.

According to a Buzzfeed investigation last year, several other deaths of vocal Putin critics in England attributed to suicide or natural causes were actually hits, including oligarch Boris Berezovsky in 2013, whistleblower Alexander Perepilichnyy in 2012, Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili in 2008, and cofounder of the Yukos oil conglomerate Yuri Golubev in 2007.

The attempt on Skripal finally seemed to get the notice of the UK. The May government has called for additional EU economic sanctions against Russia and brought charges against two members of Russian military intelligence after discovering traces of the Novichok nerve agent in the room they rented in London. But the UK is on the verge of leaving the EU and the two operatives are safely back in Russia.

Saudi Arabia might be calculating that Russia, despite a series of overseas hits, is not an international pariah — so maybe Riyadh can get away with one such job.

History suggests otherwise.

Historical Precedents

In 1940, Stalin finally got his wish: the assassination of one of his most vocal opponents abroad, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico. Stalin would only live another 13 years and Stalinism effectively died with him.

In 1976, agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet assassinated Orlando Letelier, former ambassador to the United States under the leftist Allende government. Pinochet would fall from power and eventually died under house arrest with numerous charges of human rights violations pending. The Chilean government has indicted Armando Fernandez Larios for his involvement in the assassination and has called for his extradition from the United States to Chile for trial.

In 1978, Bulgarian agents used the poisoned tip of an umbrella to kill dissident writer Georgi Markov in London. Bulgaria’s Communist regime of Todor Zhivkov lasted only another 11 years.

Stalin, Pinochet, Zhivkov: history does not look kindly upon them. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia might be looking at a different set of historical cases.

Israel, for instance, has assassinated a large number of would-be citizens of its state, namely Palestinians.

Most recently, Israel has killed over 200 residents of Gaza who began protesting last March the conditions in the enclave and demanding the right to return to their expropriated land. Going back to the 1950s, it also assassinated a West German rocket scientist working for Egypt, a Libyan embassy employee in Rome, an Egyptian nuclear scientist in Paris, a Brazilian colonel in Sao Paolo, a Canadian engineer in Brussels, a number of Syrian military men, and several Iranian scientists. And yet no one has been brought to trial for any of these killings.

The United States, meanwhile, has attempted, supported, and occasionally succeeded in killing overseas leaders. But it was only in 2011 that it assassinated U.S. citizens. That year, the Obama administration authorized a drone strike in Yemen that killed two U.S. citizens — Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan — and then another strike two weeks later that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son. The Obama administration did not face any consequences for this extrajudicial killing.


The Saudi government probably felt that it could get away with this assassination of Khashoggi because of its close relationship with the Trump administration. It had also been successfully wooing America’s liberal elite. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for instance, garnered rave reviews from journalists like Tom Friedman, who declared the reform agenda of the likely next Saudi king to be an “Arab spring.”

But it’s also not hard to conclude that Saudi Arabia felt that it could take out a journalist because of a more general lawlessness that is pervading the international community. Russia’s innovative mixture of government policy and mafia operations is part of it. So is the Trump administration’s overall disregard for human rights. Then there’s the open season that’s been declared on journalists, many of them like Daphne Anne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia targeted for their reporting on corruption.

At a time when right-wing populists want to shut down borders to prevent migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from finding safe refuge, another type of border crosser is having an easier time of it: the assassin. If Saudi Arabia gets away with its latest atrocity, the club of Assassins Without Borders will soon be inducting many new members.

The post Assassins Without Borders appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.

‘Jobs’ Are No Excuse for Arming a Murderous Regime

Tue, 10/16/2018 - 12:20pm

White House / Flickr

If the Saudi government is indeed behind the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi there should be consequences — political, military, economic, and reputational.

Unfortunately, President Trump begs to differ. His reaction to questions about whether the United States would cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia if Riyadh is proven to be behind the killing of Khashoggi has been to say that he does not want to jeopardize the alleged $110 billion in arms deals his administration has struck with the Saudi regime, and the U.S. jobs that come with them.

In his recent interview with CBS 60 Minutes, Trump specifically cites the needs of U.S. weapons manufacturers as reasons to keep U.S. arms flowing to the Saudi regime, even if it ends up being responsible for the murder of Khashoggi:

They are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it…I tell you what I don’t wanna do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies]…I don’t wanna hurt jobs. I don’t wanna lose an order like that.

Trump tells CBS’s Leslie Stahl that “there are other ways of punishing” Saudi Arabia without cutting of U.S. arms sales, but he fails to specify what those might be.

Regardless of what ultimately happened to Khashoggi, continuing U.S. arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia under current circumstances is immoral. Jobs should not be an excuse to arm a murderous regime that not only may be behind the assassination of a U.S. resident and respected commentator but is responsible for thousands of civilian casualties in its three-and-one-half-year military intervention in Yemen — the majority killed with U.S.-supplied bombs and combat aircraft and U.S. refueling and targeting assistance.

The Khashoggi case merely underscores the approach of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power behind the throne in Riyadh who is the most ruthless and reckless leader in Saudi history.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), one of a growing list of congressional critics of the regime, has asserted that the actions of the Saudi/UAE coalition in Yemen “look like war crimes.” And the impacts go well beyond the indiscriminate air strikes that have targeted hospitals, civilian market places, funerals, a wedding, and most recently a school bus carrying 40 children. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also spearheading a partial blockade that has made it extremely difficult to get urgently need humanitarian assistance to Yemenis who desperately need it, putting millions of people on the brink of starvation. And their bombings of water treatment plants and other civilian infrastructure are responsible for the most serious outbreak of cholera in recent memory, a totally preventable consequence of the war.

Even if it were acceptable to favor jobs over human rights in this case, the economic benefits are in fact marginal. Trump strongly implies that if the United States were to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the $110 billion arms “deal” he has made with Riyadh would be in jeopardy. But as the fact checker for The Washington Post has pointed out, the idea that there ever was a $110 billion arms deal is “fake news.” It is a public relations figure cooked up by the Trump administration that combines offers made under the Obama administration, a few new deals, and a long wish list of sales that may never materialize.

In reality, since Trump took office, Saudi Arabia has signed commitments for about $14.5 billion in U.S. weaponry, only slightly more than 10 percent of the $110 billion figure Trump boasts about at every opportunity.

To cite one pertinent example, the precision-guided bomb sale to Saudi Arabia that the Trump administration green-lighted last year will support at most a few thousand jobs in an economy that employs over 125 million people.

Military procurement generates fewer jobs than virtually any other form of economic activity, and many of the jobs associated with U.S. arms sales are created overseas in the purchasing nation as a condition of the sale. For example, as part of Mohammed bin Salman’s much-touted economic plan, the goal is to have a full 50 percent of the work generated by Saudi arms imports done in the kingdom by 2030. U.S. firms are already jumping to comply with this mandate by setting up subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia and signing off on the assembly of U.S.-supplied weapons there.

Trump’s claim that Russia or China will quickly swoop in to grab any arms deal the United States declines to conclude with the Saudi regime is also suspect. The Saudi arsenal is heavily dependent on U.S.- and UK-supplied weaponry. It would take many years and tens of billions of dollars to change course in any meaningful way — money that Riyadh can ill afford as it hemorrhages money for its brutal war in Yemen and tries to cope with unstable oil prices. It’s always possible that the Saudi military would make a token purchase from Russia or China to send a signal, but the idea that the United States would lose out on a huge volume of arms sales as a result is unlikely in the extreme.

There are other ways to promote jobs in the United States that do not involve accepting blood money from the Saudi regime. Congress should not be dissuaded from doing the right thing due to false claims about the economic benefits of the U.S.-Saudi arms trade.

The ball is now in the congressional court, where bipartisan opposition to the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia is growing. Most recently the House is seeking to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen under the War Powers Resolution, an effort led by Mark Pocan (D-WI), Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Adam Smith (D-WA) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of dozens of their colleagues. There will also be strong opposition to a long-discussed sale of precision-guided U.S. bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates once it comes up for formal consideration.

The case of Jamal Khashoggi is just one of many reasons for the United States to distance itself from the Saudi regime. The time to act is now.

The post ‘Jobs’ Are No Excuse for Arming a Murderous Regime appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

China’s Belt and Road Hits Bumps in Laos

Tue, 10/16/2018 - 8:26am

Train station near Vientiane, Laos (Shakar S. via Flickr)

China’s Belt and Road initiative(BRI) seeks to facilitate political and economic cooperation among Eurasian countries and spur the development of member nations that lag behind economically.

The initiative, for instance, has greatly improved the economic and social conditions within Laos. The construction of the China-Laos railway is the first step to boosting the economy of this landlocked country. It will increase both trade and tourism. Besides building infrastructure, China has also introduced technological innovations in Laos. It helped launch Vientiane’s first satellite, which will not only improve Internet connection quality for communication purposes but also spread health services and educational opportunities to the countryside.

Despite the ambitions of these grand projects, very few have produced any significant achievements. Many Chinese enterprises have encountered unanticipated difficulties in the implementation phase. Based on interviews with representatives from the Jixiang cement factory in Yunnan, for example, the core obstacle impeding the advancement of public projects is that it’s difficult to attract and keep Laotian workers. Several corporations mentioned that salaries were often distributed three to four times per month to ensure workers won’t quit halfway through the project.

This lack of motivation, even in the face of financial benefits, can be ascribed to Lao demographics. Laos covers an area of 236,800 square kilometers and has a population of almost 7 million people, making it possible to allot abundant land to each individual household. Additionally, all agricultural lands are privatized, providing locals with accommodation and fulfilling their dietary needs. Lao citizens are satisfied with their present conditions and not eager to change the status quo.

The lack of funds for a developing country like Laos is another stumbling block, causing a shortage of specialized skills and talented recruits. China, then, must pick up the slack by bringing in Chinese workers. Ever since Laos and China first formally established diplomatic relations in 1961, trade between the two countries have been lopsided in China’s favor. In recent years, the renovation of the Lang Prabang Airport and establishment of the World Trade Center, both collaborative projects on paper, eventually became unilateral as China CAMC Engineering dominated nearly every step of the process. Lao dependence on Chinese enterprises to jumpstart the economy forces it to constantly rely on Chinese financial support as well as manpower.

A small percentage of educated Laotians have an opportunity to study at Chinese universities. In most cases, students focus on sharpening their language abilities rather than acquiring professional knowledge. So, there is still a staffing challenge for Chinese businesses in Laos. Employees at the Bank of China in Vientiane, for instance, are mostly from China although the major goal was to promote opportunities for local employees. Nor does this privileged class of Laotians seem to spend much time reaching newspapers and thus learning about the Chinese-Lao cooperation. A lack of awareness about the progress of the initiative in their own country translates into a lack of the excitement necessary for the project to proceed smoothly.

To address the over-reliance on Chinese government and industries, reforms of the Lao educational system must take place. The Confucius Institute affiliated with the Laos National University, the first institution in Laos dedicated to the instruction of Chinese language for people of all classes and ages, face a shortage of local teachers. The headmaster there points out that all current teachers are from universities in Southern China, rather than from Laos. A clear disadvantage of this setup is that Chinese teachers tend to introduce their own country’s cultural practices and beliefs, which can potentially undermine Laotians’ ability to see the world from their own unique perspectives.

The Chinese agency Xinhua News provides one third of the content in the Lao newspaper Vientiane Times. Viewing the world partially through the lens of China will imperceptibly shape the Lao way of thinking, limiting it to the confines created by Chinese authorities. This creates an unhealthy cycle that will make it more difficult to break away from this heavy dependence.

Educational institutions such as the Confucius Institute are essential in providing a bridge between China and Laos, using Chinese as the medium to create more employment opportunities for local citizens. Although it is not feasible for Laos to boost its economy without external support, the country should strive to train more local teachers to teach Chinese. Such local teachers can shield Laotians from the invisible influences brought about by teachers strongly influenced by Chinese characteristics.

Next, training in specialized knowledge and cultivating a concern for current affairs must be emphasized. The final goal is for educated citizens to apply their knowledge with flexibility in occupations such as banking and renewable energy industries, where executive positions are often taken by Chinese residents in Laos. Language serves as a stepping stone but doesn’t offer the technical skills required to stand out.

Finally, all Laotians should also cultivate the habit of paying attention to both domestic and international news, particularly on Facebook, since that social media platform is already widely used in the country. This can help spur more engagement in Laotian affairs as well as bilateral projects involving China.

The post China’s Belt and Road Hits Bumps in Laos appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Vincent Wang is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.