Feb 21, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back for another global digest. If you give me 6 minutes (1,587 words), I'll give you the World.

  • Spread the word! New readers can sign up here, and you can send tips and feedback to lawler@axios.com.
1 big thing: Trump strikes back against “Deep State”

Richard Grenell in Berlin. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

By picking Ambassador Richard Grenell to be acting director of national intelligence, President Trump has slotted a pro-Trump warrior into the ultimate apolitical role.

The big picture: Grenell is beloved by Trump and his supporters for his willingness to go on the attack in support of the president, seeming to revel in the backlash on Twitter and from his hosts in Germany.

His critics argue that placing a partisan bomb-thrower atop America's 17 intelligence agencies is a mistake, particularly as Grenell lacks an intelligence background.

  • But Trump has never viewed the intelligence community as nonpartisan. He believes it’s full of “Never Trumpers” — and clearly sees value in having a loyalist at the helm.
  • Grenell, believed to be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary, is expected to keep his posts as ambassador to Germany and envoy for Serbia-Kosovo while serving as acting DNI.
  • He tweeted today that he will only serve in an acting capacity, and a permanent nominee will be named soon.

Driving the news: The termination of Joseph Maguire as acting DNI came just days after Trump raged at him for allowing a briefing to Congress on Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, the NYT and Washington Post report.

  • Trump reportedly felt the disclosure that Russia wanted to help him get re-elected would give ammunition to his critics, including Rep. Adam Schiff, who attended the briefing.
  • Trump “berated” Maguire for allowing the hearing to take place, per the Times.

Zoom out: Maguire, who faced turmoil early in his tenure over his handling of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, is one of several ousted officials touched by the Ukraine scandal.

Pentagon policy chief John Rood, who was pushed out this week, was among the officials who certified that Ukraine met the criteria to receive $250 million in security aid. Trump withheld the aid, later claiming that it was due to corruption concerns.

  • One impeachment witness, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, was pulled off the National Security Council earlier this month.
  • Another, Gordon Sondland, was fired as EU ambassador. A third, former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, had previously left the State Department.
  • Several other senior Pentagon officials have left in recent weeks, for various reasons.

The bottom line: The vacancies continue to pile up, and Trump will likely prioritize loyalty over experience in filling them.

  • He has spent his first term squabbling with top national security officials. Some have even criticized him after leaving office.
  • Heading into his re-election bid, he’s stocking his administration with people he trusts.

Go deeper: Top NSC official reassigned amid "Anonymous" fallout

2. World news roundup
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. U.S. numbers include Americans extracted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

1. China is attempting to restart an economy that has been effectively shuttered over the last three weeks without exacerbating the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Factories across much of the country are shut down or running at a fraction of capacity. One-third of China's small firms, meanwhile, are in danger of running out of cash, per the NYT.
  • The economic implications are global. A fall in Chinese demand has hit oil prices. It has also exposed the dependence of many Africa economies on trade with China, the FT notes.

2. Turkish-backed forces attacked Syrian troops today in Idlib, per DW.

  • The big picture: The Assad regime is intent on retaking Syria's Idlib province through a brutal offensive, backed by Russia. But that's causing a humanitarian crisis and enraging Turkey, which has closed its border to additional Syrian refugees.
  • With nowhere to go, many of the 900,000 people displaced by the fighting are sleeping on the streets in the cold.
  • The leaders of Germany and France called Vladimir Putin today and said they were willing to help broker a political solution between Russia and Turkey.

3. The Trump administration this week sanctioned a subsidiary of Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, for helping to keep Venezuela's Maduro regime afloat by facilitating oil exports.

  • An estimated 70-80% of Venezuela's oil exports are handled by Russian firms, primarily Rosneft.

4. The official White House justification for the killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani does not cite an "imminent threat," despite previous claims by officials including President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

3. Africa Part I: How young people are feeling

Lagos. Apparently this guy is playing Pokemon Go. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP via Getty Images

A new survey of 18-24-year-olds across 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa finds that while just 37% are happy with their current standard of living, 82% believe it will improve in the next two years.

Key findings from across the 14 countries:

  • 81% believe access to technology will improve their lives. While 80+% have regular access to the internet in Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa, less than 50% do in Ethiopia, Republic of the Congo and Togo.
  • 51% check the news daily and 80% at least once a week. Their top news sources are TV (72%), social media (54%) and radio (52%).

Politics and identity:

  • Most people identify primarily by their nationality (51%), rather than as African (17%), by tribe (17%), race (13%) or political affiliation (2%).
  • 63% say religion plays a big role in their daily life, with Ethiopia (88%) on the high end and Gabon (30%) on the low end.
  • Vast majorities support freedom of speech and religion (85%) and increased protections for ethnic minorities (80%).
  • But 69% oppose additional protections for LGBTQ rights.

The big picture:

  • Asked what had the biggest impact on Africa over the past five years, deaths from infectious disease came first with 24%, followed by terrorism (15%) and the digital revolution (12%).
  • For the next five years, the respondents’ top priorities are reducing corruption (26%) and creating jobs (24%). Climate change (2%) barely registered.

The poll was conducted by PSB Research for the Ichikowitz Family Foundation. The countries surveyed were Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. See full results.

4. Africa Part II: Influence of global powers

China's Xi Jinping with Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed. Photo: Parker Song/Kyodo News — Pool/Getty Images

Young Africans tend to believe China and the U.S. wield significant influence in their countries — and they welcome both.

By the numbers: 79% believe China has at least some influence in their country, compared to 74% for the U.S. and just 37% for Russia.

  • That's also compared to 70% for the EU, 62% for France, 54% for the U.K., 33% for India and 32% for Saudi Arabia.

Most say foreign influence in Africa is a negative thing, and a form of colonialism. But when asked about specific countries (other than France, a former colonial power), big majorities view it positively.

  • 83% approve of U.S. influence. China isn't far behind at 79%, while 68% view Russian influence favorably.

Zoom in: The gap between China's perceived influence and America's is dramatic in the Republic of Congo, Gabon and Zimbabwe.

  • The U.S. is seen as more influential in Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Togo — but by fairly small margins.
  • U.S. influence is viewed far more favorably than Chinese in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Zambia.
  • The opposite is true in Mali, Senegal and Togo.

Zoom out: Asked if they'd prefer to live in a democracy or a stable one-party system, respondents across the 14 countries were evenly split.

5. Middle East: Iran's hardliner vs. hardliner election

Electoral posters and a banner featuring Qasem Soleimani in Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Iran's parliamentary elections on Friday will be dominated by hardline candidates, Behnam Ben Taleblu writes for Axios.

Driving the news: An estimated one-third of sitting parliamentarians were disqualified from participating, reformists were barred en masse, and boycotts are expected from portions of the increasingly disenfranchised population.

Why it matters:

  • For Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, having more hardliners at the helm of different institutions is an insurance policy against change from within.
  • For hardline politicians, the conservative consolidation will make capturing the presidency in 2021 even easier.
  • For Hassan Rouhani, the current president, it will confirm his lame-duck status.
  • For the Iranian people, it is proof that change will not come through a highly controlled “ballot-box.”
  • For Washington, although the parliament does not decide foreign policy, more hardliners will likely mean a more confrontational approach, especially on the nuclear issue.

Where things stand: Iran’s unelected Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elected office, disqualified just over half of the 15,000 would-be candidates.

  • Khamenei has played to both Islamist and nationalist sentiment in a bid to get out the vote, going so far as to call voting a “religious duty.”

The bottom line: Faced with increasing domestic unrest and Washington’s ongoing maximum pressure campaign, Iranian authorities are looking to use the election to signal strength abroad by alleging popularity at home. If turnout is as low as expected, that will send the opposite message.

6. What I'm reading: Should America be a superpower?

Illustration:Rebecca Zisser/Axios

America's post-Cold War pursuit of unassailable military superiority has made the world more dangerous because it stokes tensions with adversaries and saps resources that would be better spent combating climate change and inequality.

That argument, made by Stephen Wertheim in the new edition of Foreign Affairs, runs counter to Washington's longstanding foreign policy consensus. But it's becoming increasingly prevalent.

Wertheim is deputy director of research and policy for the Quincy Institute, a new think tank funded by strange billionaire bedfellows George Soros and Charles Koch to oppose U.S. military intervention overseas.

  • That pairing perhaps makes sense when you consider that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have campaigned on reigning in U.S. military commitments.

Wertheim has some provocative suggestions:

  • The U.S. should withdraw almost entirely from the Middle East and allow the region to "find its own balance of power."
  • The U.S. should focus on improving relations with Iran and North Korea and shouldn't contemplate war with either, even to prevent a nuclear buildup.
  • The U.S. should make cooperation on climate change, not competition for global influence, the centerpiece of its China strategy.
  • The U.S. should stop treating Russia as a major security threat and should respect its central aims, including "avoiding hostile governments in its 'near abroad.'"

My thought bubble: That gets complicated when Russia topples a "hostile government" in Ukraine or China uses military force in the South China Sea.

7. Stories we're watching

Flooding in Worcester, U.K., due to Storm Dennis. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

  1. In photos: Storm Dennis strikes U.K.
  2. Ghani declared victor in Afghanistan's disputed election
  3. How a Chinese think tank rates all 50 U.S. governors
  4. Ukrainian president says he's "ready for next call" with Trump
  5. Netanyahu gets a court date
  6. Exclusive: Pompeo on new China media restrictions
  7. China expels 3 Wall Street Journal reporters


"The @WSJ cannot use freedom of speech as a pretext to publish a discriminatory & insulting article with a racist headline. They cannot refuse to apologize for its mistake under the pretext of freedom of speech, either."
— China's Foreign Ministry, showing a fairly limited understanding of freedom of speech