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Sensemaker: Scorched earth

Sensemaker: Scorched earth

Wednesday 13 January 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Mitch McConnell, the senior Senate Republican, reportedly said he backs Democratic efforts to impeach Trump a second time, starting today.
  • A new study found that nearly half of NHS critical care staff are suffering from post-traumatic stress from the first wave of the pandemic.
  • The biggest mafia trial in more than 30 years started in Calabria.

Scorched earth

In Taiwan, Yemen, Cuba and Iran, the outgoing US administration is leaving political landmines for Team Biden in what David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary, has called “pure diplomatic vandalism”. The man behind this is Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state; his aim apparently to make Biden look weak as he restores some common sense to US foreign policy. Looking ahead, there’s another thing: Pompeo wants to be president.

In chronological order:

  • Taiwan. On Saturday Pompeo lifted restrictions on formal contacts between US and Taiwanese officials that have been in place for 41 years. Ostensibly this underlines the Trump administration’s firm support for Taiwan and its democracy in the face of Chinese intimidation. It also hands Pompeo’s successor, Tony Blinken, a diplomatic emergency on day one in his new job. Nothing causes more acute neuralgia in Beijing than recognition for an island it claims as its own.
  • Yemen. On Sunday Pompeo said he planned to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels a foreign terrorist organisation. In principle this will make it illegal under US law to move food through the crucial Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah from 19 January. The designation allows waivers for aid agencies that help feed 80 per cent of Yemenis, but in practice there’s no way to police it or the waivers – which would only protect US government employees and entities anyway. Pompeo’s main aim is to make it as hard as possible for Blinken to resume talks with Iran, which supports the Houthis. More than 100,000 have died in Yemen’s civil war and famine is forecast for 2021. Iona Craig, an expert on the region, says the impact of the designation is going to be felt by civilians rather than the Houthis. 
  • Cuba. On Monday Pompeo added Cuba to the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, principally to reverse a key element of Obama’s rapprochement with Havana before it’s too late. There’s zero evidence of Cuba sponsoring terrorism over the past four years, which is why Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, called this a “blatantly politicised designation”. Pompeo will certainly remind Cuban-Americans of his brave stand on their behalf when he wades into his first presidential primary.
  • Iran. On Tuesday Pompeo said Iran was a new “home base” for al-Qaeda. Again, zero evidence. And again, the purpose seems to be to derail the Biden administration’s efforts to patch Obama’s Iran deal back together before they’ve even begun. Team Trump’s Iran strategy of “maximum pressure” is working, Pompeo insisted in a tweet. Washington’s abiding fear is that this strategy might culminate in military action ordered by an unhinged commander-in-chief.

Question for the post-mortem: what role in all this did the soon-to-be-ex First Son-in-law Jared Kushner have? Everything that hurts Iran helps Saudi Arabia, where he’s been cultivating ties with the Crown Prince – despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the jailing of Loujain al-Hathloul and so much else – for most of the past four years. Just asking.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Red tape
“There’s so much complexity,” Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce tells Bloomberg. “It’s like an onion. The more you peel, the more you cry.” He’s talking about the UK’s exciting new trading environment. Clearly if you want evidence that there’s more friction, angst, confusion and bureaucracy now than heretofore, you can go out and find it. But it’s just so easy. Empty shelves in Northern Ireland. Supermarket bosses pleading for more time to get used to the Northern Ireland protocol. Ham sandwiches snaffled from lorry drivers at Calais. Salmon and seed potatoes piling up in Scotland. Duplicate health and safety certification requirements. Less cod for some trawlers rather than more. European share trading for some banks cut in half. But as we’re reminded from time to time it’s not all gloomy. The London IPO scene (initial public offerings for well-connected investors) hasn’t looked this good since 2008. One to watch this week that’s worthy of a caption competition: Dr. Martens, maker of boots. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Just a hunch, but this could become part of all our lives: a Taiwanese invention that pricks your finger and then sucks. It’s called the Haiim and collects up to 500 microlitres (half a millilitre) of blood in two minutes compared with about 10 microlitres for a standard prick. The blood’s stored in a single-use cartridge and can be used for many tests, not just one. There’s even a heartwarming personal story behind this: its inventor says he has bad memories of his mother’s veins collapsing when having her blood taken the old-fashioned way. The Haiim is not quite new. It was approved for use in Taiwan two years ago and is now looking for “partners” at this year’s all-online Consumer Electronics Show. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Build the wall!
An astonishing plan to plant an 8000km Great Green Wall of trees and grasses from Senegal to Djibouti got a boost this week when donors including the African Development Bank, World Bank and French government pledged $14 billion to support it. The project aims to create a transitional zone 15km wide between the encroaching Sahara and humid savannas to the south. In Senegal, 12 million trees have already been planted. In Ethiopia, 15 million hectares of degraded land has been restored. If successful, the Wall could see 100 million hectares of degraded land restored, 250 million tonnes of carbon sequestered and 10 million rural jobs created by 2030. Yet after 13 years it’s still only 4 per cent complete and this latest cash boost provides less than a third of the $33 billion needed. Elon? Bill? Jeff?

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Sinovac sells
Indonesia has become the first country outside China to approve the use of the Chinese Sinovac Covid vaccine for emergency use, and President Joko Widodo has had the first of his two shots. Indonesia (population 270 million) has bought 330 million doses, although if British number management is any guide this only means enough for 165 million full double vaccinations. Will they work? Unclear. The vaccine’s makers report wide variations in efficacy in trials, from 92 per cent in Turkey to 50 per cent in Brazil. But even 50 per cent is a lot better than nothing. Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have also placed big orders, and the WHO hasn’t even added Sinovac to its emergency use list yet.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

New POTUS, new houses
In 2009 Vice President Joe Biden undertook the new Obama administration’s first trip to Israel on behalf of his boss. While he was there Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, announced the construction of 1,600 new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem. Benjamin Netanyahu, who then as now was prime minister, claimed to be surprised and embarrassed. Either way, it wrecked the trip. Eleven years on something similar is happening. On Monday Israel announced plans to build 800 new homes for settlers in the occupied West Bank. The Trump administration has all but dropped the idea of a two-state solution but Biden’s transition team has made clear it wants to revive it. This won’t help with that – although it might help Netanyahu in elections scheduled for March. 

Opinion: Liz Moseley
Shops are culture

The demise of the ‘Big Topshop’ in London will leave a gap in
our Saturday afternoons – and our lives. Read the rest of this
article here.

And finally… anyone concerned about the collective ability of Britain’s opposition, courts and media to hold an incompetent, dissembling and often heartless government to account might find some consolation in this masterful skewering of health secretary Matt Hancock this morning by Piers Morgan on the subject of free school meals in lockdown during holidays, which Hancock has opposed. What mad doctrine prevents otherwise sane politicians apologising or admitting regret when it is plainly the only thing left for them to do?

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Ellen Halliday

Photographs Getty Images