Oct 8, 2018

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome to Axios World, where two evenings a week we break down what you need to know about the big stories from around the globe.

Thanks for joining me! Please tell your friends and colleagues to sign up here, and I'd love your tips and feedback: lawler@axios.com.

1 big thing: Two suspicious disappearances

The Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Two men with large international profiles and powerful enemies vanished. Two repressive regimes were reportedly responsible.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and insider-turned-critic who wrote a Washington Post column from exile, vanished after entering a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday. Two days later, Interpol President Meng Hongwei was reported missing while traveling in China.

Did the Saudis kill Khashoggi?

  • Khashoggi, 59, lost his marriage, his home and many of his possessions when he moved from Saudi Arabia, where he felt he was no longer safe, last summer. He had been increasingly critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and shared his concerns with his readers and followers (1.68 million on Twitter). According to the New Yorker’s Robin Wright, he feared that criticism could cost him his life.
  • Khashoggi planned to get married last week, and traveled to the Istanbul consulate with his fiancée to retrieve a necessary document. She says she waited outside for 11 hours. He never emerged.
  • Turkish officials have privately told U.S. and international news outlets Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate by Saudis sent specifically to kill him. At least one source said his body was dismembered.

Where things stand: Prince Mohammed denied Khashoggi was even detained, and Saudi Arabia invited Reuters journalists to tour the consulate. Turkey hasn't presented any evidence to back the anonymous claims and publicly says it's still investigating. President Trump weighed in this evening:

"I am concerned about that. I don't like hearing about it and hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now nobody knows anything about it. There's some pretty bad stories about it. I do not like it."

Disappearance #2: Why did the Chinese arrest Meng?

  • Meng, 64, became the first Chinese head of Interpol in 2016, a breakthrough for China on the world stage. A year later, a "proud" President Xi Jinping addressed the agency, the NYT points out.
  • Meng's wife, with whom he lived in Lyon (where Interpol is based), last heard from him on September 25 when he texted a knife emoji — an apparent signal he was in danger. She reported his disappearance to French authorities on October 4. Yesterday, after Interpol announced his resignation, China revealed it was holding him.
  • Today, a government spokesman said Meng faces charges for corruption and other crimes. The State Department says it urges China “to uphold international rules and norms, and to pursue an investigation that is based in transparency."

That seems unlikely. A foreign ministry spokesman has indicated that China — after detaining the leader of an international law enforcement organization and keeping it secret for days — doesn’t expect significant pushback:

“As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and as a responsible great power, China will continue playing the role that it should in international affairs, especially multilateral bodies.”

What to watch: If the reports prove accurate, both countries have sent a brazen message that no one who runs afoul of the government is safe. And two regimes with no tolerance for internal criticism seem to be risking censure from the world.

  • Khashoggi's case poses a particular test for the Trump administration, which has cosy ties with the Saudis and doesn't consider promoting human rights a priority.
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham is one of a few senators speaking out. He says there'll be "a heavy price to be paid" if the reports are accurate. Time will tell.

Go deeper: Khashoggi disappearance could impact Saudi Arabia's business deals.

2. War in Afghanistan turns 17

Axios' Haley Britzky has been reporting this week on an anniversary few would have anticipated back in 2001: the war in Afghanistan has turned 17.

Expand chart
Data: Congressional Research Service and the Library of Congress; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios
  • 23-year-old James Slape was killed by an improvised explosive device in Helmand Province last Thursday. By my math, that was 6,121 days after Nathan Ross Chapman became the first American killed by the enemy in Afghanistan.

Erica, who asked that we only use her first name, told Haley she accompanied her son to a recruiting station in El Paso, Texas last year when he enlisted at the age of 17, knowing he could be deployed to fight a war that began when he was just one year old.

"My son and many other young men and women took an oath to protect our country from all terroristic threats foreign or domestic. So as long as there are people out there trying to or causing harm to the United States then our men and women will be there to defend it."
What they've said
  • President Obama said in 2014 that he planned to pull the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
  • President Trump said in 2017 that while his "original instinct was to pull out...[a] hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists — including ISIS and al Qaeda — would instantly fill."

The bottom line: No one wants to stay in Afghanistan, but no one seems to know how to leave, either.

3. Americans tend to view the war as a failure

Almost half of Americans (49%) think the U.S. has "mostly failed" in Afghanistan, a Pew Research survey has found.

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

Why it matters: Three presidents and billions of dollars later, only about one-third of Americans think the war has been a success. The country is also divided over whether it was a good idea to use military force at all: 45% say it was — down from 69% in 2005 — while 39% say it was the wrong choice.

  • More Republicans (66%) believe the U.S. has succeeded than Democrats (31%).

Go deeper:

4. Latin America: Tropical Trump dominates in Brazil

People watch election night coverage from a bar in Rio. Photo: Fernando Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro nearly pulled off a stunning first-round victory in Brazil yesterday. He needed a majority to win the presidency outright and —despite polling in the low-30s — he soared to 46%, 17 points ahead of his opponent in the Oct. 28 runoff, Fernando Haddad.

American University's Michael McCarthy breaks it down for Axios Expert Voices:

  • With the margin of victory crucial to legitimizing a mandate, the second round will hinge on coalition-building. Bolsonaro has described the stakes as “prosperity, liberty, family on God’s sides or Venezuela’s path.” Market cheer for Bolsonaro's ascendance may help him draw more support from centrist voters.
  • Haddad, a former mayor who also served in former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government and has been dogged by links to the Car Wash corruption scandal, will look to create an anti-Bolsonaro front. His coalition will likely include third-place finisher Ciro Gomes (12.5%) and will have to mobilize voters who sat out the first round.
  • In the previous presidential vote, turnout slightly declined in the runoff round, but those candidates had failed to enthuse the public. In this case, the public seems to perceive the stakes as much higher, even if disillusionment is rampant.

Why it matters: Whoever wins, Brazil will remain bitterly divided and too weak to fulfill its dream of becoming a global power. A Bolsonaro government would also be on a collision course with Nicolas Maduro, setting up a tense situation in which Venezuela’s neighbors to the West and South take tougher lines toward Caracas.

5. Africa: Cameroon votes amid separatist violence

Voters watch the counting of votes in the outskirts of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Photo: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images

Cameroon's opposition leader today declared himself the winner of yesterday's presidential election. That's highly unlikely to hold up in a country that has been ruled by the same man, 85-year-old Paul Biya, for 36 years.

  • The lead-up to the election was dominated by the violence in Cameroon's English-speaking regions, where a de facto civil war has left 600 dead and 150,000 displaced.
  • There were scattered clashes reported on election day. Few turned up in some separatist areas. So deep were concerns that thousands fled before the votes were even cast.
  • "It is hard to see the separatists getting their own state. Regional and Western governments are wary of backing them, mindful of how newly minted South Sudan has collapsed into civil war," the Economist notes.
6. Europe roundup: Marriage, murder and spies

A member of the LGBT community gets emotional before results of referendum to stipulate that marriage is between a man and a woman. Photo: Daniel Mihailescu/ AFP/Getty Images

1. A referendum seeking to amend Romania's constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman failed yesterday.

  • Details: Romania doesn't allow same-sex marriage or civil unions, but conservatives wanted to go further. The amendment required a turnout of at least 30% but only 20% of eligible voters participated, per the AP.

Go deeper: Where gay marriage is legal around the world.

2. Viktoria Marinova, a Bulgarian journalist whose last broadcast was a report into potential fraud by companies involved in EU-funded infrastructure projects, was found dead on Saturday, reports Politico.

  • The big picture: Per BBC News, Marinova is the fourth high-profile journalist to be killed in the European Union since 2017. While there is no evidence to suggest her murder was connected to her work, Bulgaria is considered by Reporters Without Borders to be the worst country in the EU for press freedom.

3. Bellingcat, an investigative website, has identified the second suspect in the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal as Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor working for Russian intelligence.

7. Stories we're watching

The wreckage of Sulawesi island after Indonesia's deadly earthquake and tsunami. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

  1. Special report: The new global race to space.
  2. Amid dire warnings, global carbon emissions expected to climb.
  3. Pakistan to seek bailout from IMF.
  4. Nobel Peace Prize awarded to two activists fighting sexual violence.
  5. Budget stereotypes are dying hard in Europe.
  6. Financial Times editor's visa renewal denied by Hong Kong.
  7. Indonesian neighborhoods may be turned into mass grave.

Quoted:

"Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill. My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support."
— Astronaut Scott Kelly
Dave Lawler