Dec 9, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World! We have 1,598 words (6 mins) worth of globetrotting to do this evening.

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1 big thing: Boris' Brexit dreams within reach

Johnson today on the campaign trail. Photo: Ben Stansall - WPA Pool/Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to be steaming toward the parliamentary majority he desperately desires to pass his Brexit deal and end the gridlock in Westminster.

Why it matters: Thursday’s vote is the culmination of three years of intense efforts to deliver Brexit, and to block it. The rocky road Johnson has plodded along since replacing Theresa May in July would become much smoother with a resounding electoral mandate.

Driving the news: This has been a brutal campaign fought by two leaders who are disliked and distrusted by broad swaths of the public.

  • Johnson has been accused of repeatedly misleading voters, while opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has been charged with allowing anti-Semitism to fester within his Labour Party.
  • Opponents of Brexit now believe the only thing that can stop a Johnson majority is tactical voting, with voters selecting Labour or the fiercely anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats depending on which party is more likely to defeat the local Conservative candidate.

The latest polls:

  • Conservatives: 43% (+5 since election called in late October)
  • Labour: 33% (+7)
  • Lib Dems: 13% (-3)
  • Brexit: 3% (-7)
  • Greens: 3% (=)

Breaking it down: James Johnson, who ran Downing Street’s polling under Theresa May, gives the Conservatives a 75% chance of a parliamentary majority.

  • If they fall short, one scenario would see Labour form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party.
  • That could put Corbyn into Downing Street and lead to second referendums on Brexit and Scottish independence, which voters rejected in 2014.

Numbers to watch: Johnson's bar for success is the 326 seats needed for a majority, though he might keep the top job if he falls just short.

  • Johnson, the pollster, adds that the prime minister is aiming to best the 330 seats David Cameron won in 2015. That would mark the biggest Conservative majority since 1992 and also constitute a triumph in his long-standing rivalry with Cameron, his old schoolmate.
  • Corbyn's survival as Labour leader will likely depend on denying the Conservatives a majority, Johnson says.
  • “There’s a real sense in Westminster that he’s keen to jump ship,” he notes, adding that it would likely be a managed transition within the party’s leftist faction: “Corbynism doesn’t die with Corbyn.”

The big picture: Johnson has based his campaign on the argument that if the U.K. can only “get Brexit done,” it will be able to move onto other things, including a great new trade deal with the U.S.

Reality check: Peter Westmacott, a former U.K. ambassador to Washington, says even if Johnson’s Brexit deal passes, there will be “numerous dramas throughout the course of 2020” as the U.K. negotiates its future trading relationship with the EU, while a U.S.-U.K. trade deal will take “years of hard bargaining."

  • “We’ve got an America-first, unilateralist, protectionist president of the United States. It’s not going to be easy,” he says.
2. U.K. election: Watching from the White House

Trump at 10 Downing Street. It was, technically, a red carpet welcome. Photo: Alastair Grant-WPA Pool/Getty Images

Trump plays a central role in one of Corbyn's key claims: that Johnson plans to "sell out” the U.K.’s National Health Service to cut a trade deal with his "friend" in Washington.

Flashback: Trump is so politically toxic in the U.K. that Johnson, one of the few European leaders with whom he has genuinely warm relations, was careful not to get too close at last week’s NATO summit in London.

  • Downing Street was wary of an 11th-hour American intervention at the summit, but Trump showed rare restraint.
  • Johnson, meanwhile, was captured smiling alongside Justin Trudeau as the Canadian prime minister mocked Trump’s rambling press conferences.
  • “Boris kept his distance and was with the gang mocking the president,” was the verdict from Nigel Farage — a Trump ally but a Johnson rival as leader of the upstart Brexit Party — in a text to Axios. “I did not like it.”
  • However, Westmacott says there was "widespread relief” in Conservative circles that Trump’s visit caused a stir “for other reasons,” not the election.

Between the lines: Johnson, the pollster, says focus groups suggest Trump isn’t as much of a liability with British voters as he’s made out to be.

  • “Though they might tick a box in a poll that says they disapprove of Trump, after five minutes of discussion they start to say, ‘Oh, but he is quite strong, isn’t he?’ ‘Oh, he does speak his mind, we could use a bit of that here.’”
3. Americans misled for two decades on Afghanistan

Three U.S. administrations have, over 18 years, told the public the U.S. was making steady progress in Afghanistan despite knowing the war effort was failing.

Driving the news: The facts are laid bare in new reporting from the Washington Post, based on more than 2,000 pages of interviews conducted by a government oversight agency to determine what went wrong in Afghanistan. The Post gained access to the documents after a three-year legal battle.

The big picture: Generals, diplomats and other top officials generally describe a war effort without a functional strategy, along with a corresponding PR effort to obscure the dysfunction and hide setbacks.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing. What are we trying to do here?"
— Douglas Lute, a retired general and former Afghan war czar for Bush and Obama
Expand chart
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Note: Survey question changed in 2014 from "Do you now believe that the U.S. will definitely succeed, probably succeed, probably fail, or definitely fail" to "has mostly succeeded or mostly failed"; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers:

  • George W. Bush said the U.S. would be in Afghanistan until al-Qaeda was “brought to justice,” whether it took “a month” to a “year or two.”
  • 775,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan, many of them more than once, over 18 years of war. 2,300 died while 20,589 were wounded.
  • $934 billion to $978 billion was spent by the Pentagon and USAID in Afghanistan, with more spent by the CIA and other agencies.
  • $133 billion went into developing Afghanistan, exceeding the cost of the Marshall Plan.
  • Despite $8 billion spent to fight it, Afghanistan contributes 82% of the world’s opium supply.
  • Just 35% of Americans think the war effort “mostly succeeded,” while 49% think it “mostly failed,” per Pew.
  • 13,000 troops remain in Afghanistan.

Go deeper:

4. Normandy gathering favors Putin over Ukraine

Ukrainians gather outside the Presidential Office building in Kiev ahead of the Normandy Four summit in Paris. Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The “Normandy Four” — the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia — gathered for the first time in more than three years today, aiming to revive the stalled process toward peace in eastern Ukraine

Why it matters: Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the talks with all the leverage, Alina Polyakova of Brookings writes for Axios Expert Voices. Here's why:

1. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his team are new to the diplomatic game. Putin prepares thoroughly for high-level meetings and knows his French and German counterparts well.

2. French President Emmanuel Macron is pursuing his Russia "reset," while German Chancellor Angela Merkel's weaker political standing at home has left her more vulnerable to pro-Russian voices in her government.

3. The U.S. had played an informal but important role in earlier negotiations, but its commitment appears shakier in light of the impeachment proceedings.

What to watch: Ukraine's best bet, though still a terrible deal, may be a perpetuation of the status quo dating to Russia's 2014 invasion: a simmering conflict that costs Ukrainian lives but doesn’t enshrine permanent Russian control of the region.

In other Russia and Ukraine news...

  • Germany expelled two Russian diplomats last week over Moscow's stonewalling over (and likely role in) the assassination of a former Chechen rebel last August in a Berlin park. Merkel isn't rallying the world in outrage, though, as the U.K. did over the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal.
  • The World Anti-Doping Agency today banned Russia's flag and national anthem from international sporting competitions for four years. Go deeper.
  • The IMF approved a $5.5 billion loan to Ukraine yesterday, citing progress on corruption. Go deeper.

Go much deeper: Our Putin special report

5. Oceania: Putting Bougainville on the map

Referendum day in Buka, the capital. Photo: Ness Kerton/AFP via Getty Images

The people of Bougainville voted Saturday on whether they want their island to become the world's newest country.

  • Results are expected by Dec. 20, and most in Bougainville (pop. ~300,000), currently an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, are expected to vote for independence.

Why it matters: The FT notes that the referendum has "sparked a scramble for political influence among foreign mining companies, which want to establish operations in an area that contains copper and gold reserves estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars."

  • Flashback: "Between 1972 and 1989 a company controlled by Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian miner, operated the massive Panguna copper and gold mine on the island, generating huge profits and almost half of Papua New Guinea’s export income. But the activity caused serious pollution and tensions to flare with locals, which erupted into civil war in 1989 and forced Panguna to close."

What to watch: The referendum is non-binding, and Papua New Guinea's leaders seem reluctant to grant independence.

6. Data du jour: Arab world is losing its religion

People across the Arab world are "turning against religious political parties and the clerics who helped bring them to power," the Economist writes of a theme that runs through a wave of recent protests.

By the numbers: A recent Arab Barometer survey found that over the past five years across Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Libya...

  • Trust in religious leaders dropped from 51% to 40%, falling most dramatically in Iraq and Libya.
  • Trust in Islamist parties fell in all six countries — farthest in Iraq and Algeria.
  • Muslims in every country but Algeria were less likely now than five years ago to say they attended mosque regularly. Less than half now do in Tunisia, Iraq and Lebanon.

The big picture: Most people still consider themselves religious in all six countries, but the Arab world's non-religious minority is growing strikingly fast.

7. Stories we're watching

Harvesting seaweed in Taizhou, China. Photo: Liu Zhenqing/VCG via Getty Images

  1. Finland picks world's youngest prime minister
  2. How a big prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran unfolded
  3. 1,000 Iranians may have been killed in protests, U.S. estimates
  4. Trump's Saudi response criticized
  5. Rare rift: Netanyahu insists he raised West Bank annexation with Pompeo
  6. Scoop: EU pressed to recognize Palestine due to Trump policies
  7. Trump calls North Korea nuke threat “election interference”

Quoted, Nobel prize edition:

“We have been very clear about this and have clarified that there are several reasons we find this highly problematic."
— Olav Njølstad, director of the Nobel Institute, on the unprecedented decision by this year's peace laureate — Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed — to skip all press appearances while receiving his award
"To many in the West, Suu Kyi’s decision to personally defend Myanmar’s purge of the Rohingya completes her transformation from symbol of hope to ambassador of hate."
— The Washington Post on past laureate Aung San Suu Kyi heading to The Hague to defend the indefensible