In the coming week, the crisis in Gaza grows more dire, struggling Argentina votes for a new president, and Russia continues its search for friendly nations. It's October 19th, 2023, and time for The World Next Week. I am Bob McMahon.
And I'm Carla Anne Robbins.
Carla, let's start this week with what's ahead for Israel and Hamas, especially in Gaza. The humanitarian situation has grown more grim there, with daily reports of the worsening situation and anticipation about a potential aid convoy. Just this week, President Biden landed in Tel Aviv for a day long trip that was demonstrating his steadfast support for Israel but contained some warnings as well. Iran has also announced that it will take a "preemptive measure against Israel to defend Gaza." Is this growing into a larger international conflict?
Well, Bob, that is one of the reasons why Biden went there, somewhat to my surprise. I don't know if you were surprised. This was always going to be a tough trip. He decided to accept Bibi Netanyahu's invitation, and he went there, in part, to warn Hezbollah and Iran and any other potential bad actors against getting into this fight. It's the same reason the U.S. has sent two aircraft carrier groups into the region and put some 2,000 U.S. troops on alert while insisting that, if deployed there, would only provide medical support or play an advisory role.
And what we understand, the U.S. has also been doing some behind the scenes diplomacy to warn Iran off—sending messages via Qatar and others. So clearly everybody's nervous that this could get wider. And if it were to get wider, it probably would be ... start between Israel and Hezbollah and Lebanon. But there's a lot of warnings going out there, and that's one of the reasons why Biden went. This was always going to be a challenging visit for Biden, and it got a whole lot harder after the horrifying explosion on Tuesday at the Al-Alhi Hospital in Gaza which killed hundreds of men, women, and children—many of whom had gone there seeking shelter because they thought a hospital was going to be safe. And at least part of Biden's day yesterday was devoted to this question of who was responsible.
And as of now, and keep in mind that intelligence is preliminary, but U.S. intelligence relying on infrared satellite data and open source video, they were supporting Israel's claim that a rocket or missile launched from Gaza. And the Israelis are blaming the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had misfired and exploded over the hospital. But even if that's confirmed, it's unlikely to change anybody's mind in the region. And so, Biden flew into a really, really tough situation—obviously a horrible situation on the ground, and a very tough situation diplomatically.
In addition to waving off Iran, Biden went to provide moral support for Israel after the brutal massacres on October 7th. But he was also underlining the need for restraint as the Israelis are committed to destroying Hamas, and we're still waiting to see how they plan on doing it. We've been waiting to see, is there a ground invasion coming? Washington has been pressing the Israelis to delay that to allow as many Gazans as possible to flee southwards. On 60 Minutes on Sunday, Biden warned that occupying Gaza would be a big mistake. And when he was there, he was pressing for restraint. You know, in a not so oblique reference to the mistakes the United States made after 9/11, in a speech on Biden warned the Israelis. What he said was, "While you feel that rage, don't be consumed by it."
So it was a really interesting mixture of "I stand really, you know, with you, I understand your rage, I understand your pain, but be careful here." And it was a tough message, and I think he did a reasonably good job. But what we don't know is, are the Israelis listening? Biden also pledged a $100 million in aid to Gaza and the West Bank during the trip. And by the time he left, he said he'd gotten a commitment from both the Egyptians—he spent thirty minutes on the phone with Egypt's president—and from the Israelis that they could finally allow these twenty trucks that are waiting there. Of course, there's like 160 that are ready to go into Gaza if this deal holds.
Now as of Thursday, there was no sign that that border was going to be open. We understand that the road has to be repaired and that UN officials have to get some sort of system in place because the Israelis are insisting that this aid can't go to Hamas. Lord knows how they could possibly do it. But if they begin to let aid in, it's not going to... Certainly twenty trucks aren't going to solve any problem here. There's more than a million people on the move. But a little bit of progress, and if he councils restraint ... I don't know what the Israeli's end game is here, but that was what Biden tried to do. And overall, at least on that front, we see a little bit of progress if that border opens and gets some aid in.
Yes, Carla. And we should note, again, whenever we tape these podcasts that with fluid stories, things could change. Maybe the aid does starts moving through, and maybe it gets held up for further days. We don't know yet. We also have the president scheduled to make a speech, right around the time our podcast drops, to the country. He's supposed to talk about, I think, both Israel and Ukraine in terms of getting aid to both sides.
And he may or may not be speaking at a time when there is some sort of a resolution to the infighting in the Republican Party over a House speaker, which has been an unprecedented situation in its own right and is really crimping the U.S. ability to speak with any sort of really strong voice. And the U.S. credibility, back to your original point about the hospital bombing, you know, regardless of what even very credible investigations find, it's this ... the U.S. and the Israelis have a tough position to hold vis-a-vis the Arab Street, the so-called Arab Street. And public opinion is really running hot right now. And it's really a dangerous moment—not just like the international aspect of a broadening conflict, but also just societally what is going on between Muslims and Jews right now. It's a really difficult time.
It's an incredibly difficult time. One of the things that Biden had hoped to do on this trip is he'd hoped to go to Jordan after Israel, and where he was supposed to meet with our closest allies in the region, with King Abdullah of Jordan, with ... Calling Sisi, Egypt a close ally—but Egypt is traditionally a close ally— as well as Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority. And I assume to make the clear point that the U.S. really is committed to reviving some sort of peace talks to create, you know, a Palestinian state. But after this hospital explosion and with the street protest spreading across the region, King Abdullah canceled that meeting. And the Jordanians have blamed the Israelis for this explosion.
So incredibly fraught, very hard to orchestrate anything in the midst of a war, very hard to do diplomacy in the midst of it. And then Biden, as you said, comes home and is going to give this speech tonight. And what we're hearing is he's going to ask for $100 billion dollars for aid. He's tying Israeli aid to aid for Ukraine in hopes of overcoming this growing isolationist wing in the Republican Party, and in the midst, of course, of the speaker fight in the House, see whether or not they get past that and the ability to do this.
And he's also looking at beginning of divisions within his own political party. Perhaps overplayed in this, I think it's a very small number of Democrats who are criticizing Israel in this, but keeping the political party together for the Democrats as well is going to be a challenge in pushing this forward. We'll see whether he gets the Ukraine aid tied to the Israel aid, so he has a lot to sell here. So I'm not going to make the analogy between what's going on in Israel and what's going on there, but it's going to take a lot of diplomacy at home as well.
Yeah, and I would note for listeners who continue to look for the strong sources on this, credible sources on this story, and social media is not a good place to be hunting around for information. In our own think tank, Steven Cook, I recommend people to read what he's been writing on this. He has a piece up this week on our website on the Egyptian perspective on all this. He's also been writing for Foreign Policy about why Qatar has become a place for Hamas leaders to be based. We have a piece up about the humanitarian struggles facing Gaza, as well as a piece just going live from our colleague David Scheffer about, what are the laws of war, and what do they say about how this type of campaign is conducted.
Let's not forget, they're also close to 200 hostages that Hamas is holding. We don't know how that whole scenario is going to play out, what is going to be discussed, in what way it figures into any sort of, whether it's a ceasefire or any sort of calming of this situation. We fear it's going to get worse before it gets better.
And one other thing to keep in mind about Americans in harm's way, we're not exactly sure how many Americans are among those hostage; we're hearing about five plus. And across the region, the State Department is calling for people to pull out of Lebanon, warning, you know, in Bahrain, which is one of the countries that established relations with Israel. There's been protests. They had to close a consulate in Adana, Turkey. It's a very fraught time across the region. So we hope that people are safe, and our hearts are going out to both Israelis and the people in Gaza, but it's a very fraught time.
So Carla, before we move on to other topics, I want to give a quick update on some additional topics we discussed last week because there were some upcoming votes. One of them was Australia's referendum to create an "Indigenous Voice" which was rejected by Australian voters, and I'm sure we'll be discussing related issues again in future podcasts. I would like to clarify my original comments and point out that a "yes" vote would've enshrined in the constitution a way for Indigenous people to advise Parliament on policies that affect their lives, but would not have mandated representation in Parliament. Our thanks to a listener for suggesting the clarification.
Also, Poland had elections that produced a likely victory for opposition forces. Although the ruling Law and Justice Party did come first in overall vote share, it looks unlikely that it has enough seats to form a government. The Civic Coalition, KO, plans to form a coalition with the center-right Third Way Party which means it will have the necessary majority to govern Poland. And now the country seems to be on track to return to a more pro-EU, pro-Ukraine set of policies.
So, progress there, perhaps.
So Bob, onto another election. This Sunday, Argentina is going to hold its presidential and congressional vote. Argentina has a history of hyperinflation and strongmen promising to fix their economy and every other ill—a lot of magical thinking in Argentina's history. And it's in particularly bad shape right now with an annual inflation rate currently at 138 percent. And the central bank is predicting it's going to reach 180 percent year-end, and knowing Argentina's history, probably be higher than that. So what are you watching for in this vote?
Well, we've often heard the phrase in this country, "It's the economy stupid." Let's put it all in caps, in bold, and however else you can really highlight it, because that really seems to be what this is about. I mean, Argentina has, sort of, other worldly economic problems, and they're really coming to the fore in this. And as you say, the inflation and its debt problems are in the front order.
We should cite a few other things. Forty percent of Argentinians live at poverty level, basically. The country's had a real struggle in paying back international creditors; it's had three defaults since 2000, I believe. It's currently involved in IMF loans for $44 billion. Just recently, the IMF unlocked $7.5 billion of that figure a little bit earlier than planned. But it's a really tricky time period at a time when there is a very competitive election playing out.
We have to lead off with the figure of Javier Milei, who is a former economist, fifty-two years old, who is avowedly libertarian, and he represents the Liberty Advances Party. And he has come out with a very strong platform where the shaking up the economy and shaking up the way of doing businesses front and center, starting off with proposals to dollarize the economy. Part of that would be achieved, presumably, by his plan to eliminate the central bank. He wants to cut public spending by 15 percent. He's also, among other things, been critical of the pope, who's a fellow Argentinian, because he "Always stands on the side of evil," because he supports taxes.
I think a lot of people in the United States would probably agree with that, not about the pope, but about taxes.
About taxes. People get very strong and almost ... hold almost religious feelings about taxes. That's true. But as it pertains to the Argentinian currency, the peso, he has referred to it many ways, including as "excrement." And some say his comments talking down the peso and talking up the dollar could have been responsible for it losing further value just since he emerged as a leading figure in the August primaries. It's going to be closely watched. He seems to have galvanized, certainly, some younger voters on social media. He seems to have a good deal of ferment and interest.
But also polling decently are sort of an establishment figure, Sergio Massa, who's the current economy minister. Now, you might think that's a suicide mission for a sitting economy minister to run for president given the country's economic status. But he's trying to show he's a unity figure, and he represents the Peronist Union for the Homeland Party. And he's already made a number of gestures including eliminating income taxes for almost everybody. He's cut taxes on groceries for a huge number of people. He's given cash bonuses to various groups like retirees, and waived export taxes on things like agricultural products.
Now, agriculture is a really important sector in Argentina. It is a country known for its beef, its wine, its grain, and so forth. But in making such deals, he's also put the country in further tough straits in terms of trying to deal with its IMF obligations. As our colleague Shannon O'Neill and Will Freeman wrote in recent CFR blog, basically what happened at the end of the summer was Argentina conducted a complicated shell game to pay off a $1.8 billion debt with loans from Qatar and the Development Bank of Latin America and a $1.7 billion swap with the Chinese to cover payments.
So, there's a lot of things moving around here. Whoever wins—and it looks like a runoff in November is going to be likely given some of the polling figures so far—whoever gets that distinction is going to be facing a steep hill. But Argentina, while it's gone through wave after wave of economic travails, has shown a pretty vibrant democracy. So it's going to be extremely interesting Carla, in this season of interesting elections.
So one of the things about Argentina, and I actually used to work in Argentina, is that in recent years, it's really moved the region ahead in gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. They had this, I think it was the "green wave" movement for abortion rights. And it was the first country in Latin America to have a gender quota law in 1991, to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010. I don't think this, Milei, the front-runner, is pretty progressive on this front. What's going to happen with that if he wins?
Yeah, some of the language we're hearing from him on these issues is reminiscent of Jair Bolsonaro in nearby Brazil, and in terms of his strong anti-abortion positions and strong social conservative positions that run counter to that grain that you just mentioned of progressive policies on those fronts. And so yeah, and he speaks pretty bluntly on these matters. He doesn't sort of sugarcoat things, and Jair Bolsonaro also was pretty blunt on this front. And in Bolsonaro's case it served him well, in part because he was capable of portraying himself as this anti-establishment figure at a time, in Bolsonaro's case, Brazil was reeling from corruption problems.
Now, the Peronist-dominated governments have had their own corruption issues. Real problems with the IMF have also made people just exasperated about their own capabilities and their ability to work their way out of these straitjackets that they say are just keeping the country down and making more and more people try to hold their assets in dollars and so forth. And so here comes Milei saying, "Let's just dollarize it all. And let's get rid of this central bank, downsize the government," turn more conservative in ways that appeal to some people in the country. It's not clear though that he has the staying power to make, let's say, the social conservative policies stick.
Also, for him to be able to do any sort of major steps on reform, certainly on changing the currency, he's going to have to build coalitions. He doesn't seem to have, according to polling, the legislative strength to bring these things through. And so I'm not sure he's the kind of bridge builder that's going to be needed for Argentina to do the things that he wants to do.
So again, that's why I say I think we're looking at a runoff that would involve either him and Massa or another candidate, Patricia Bullrich, who's a former security minister from a center-right party, United for Change, which has been polling decently. She's also sort of a low tax exponent, but her focus has been on crime and fighting crime. So maybe he finds common cause with her, or maybe Massa's able to galvanize enough support to move ahead. It's not clear what the country is feeling like right now other than that which has been a refrain in our discussions, Carla. There's divisions in countries around the world at this time, and this is another election where you could really see a divide in Argentinian public. But I do think leading everything is a sentiment of just absolute frustration about their economic problems.
I'm always amazed that the IMF keeps lending to them.
I think they find Argentina a tantalizing country. I mean, it remains the third-largest economy in Latin America.
It's also one of the, you know, who owns who. They're in so deep to Argentina they can't help themselves.
Well Carla, let's shift the conversation to Russia. This week, President Vladimir Putin actually went on the road. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and attended the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing. That marked the ten years of the Belt and Road Initiative. His foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is wrapping up a visit to North Korea. And these high-level, high-profile engagements seem to be drawing a lot of attention, partly because Putin has rarely been seen outside of Russia because of his ICC indictment related to war crimes in Ukraine. So what's behind this Russian move towards a diplomatic ramp up?
So as you noted, Bob, Putin has been pretty much home-bound since the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in March. He missed the BRIC summit, we talked about that, in South Africa and the G20 summit in India. But last week, Mr. Putin did venture out. He went to Kyrgyzstan for a summit of former Soviet states, and now he's gone to China.
I think probably the simplest explanation for what's going on here is that he needs to take his friends wherever he can find them, and he doesn't have a lot of them. There were representatives of some 140 states at the BRI summit. And other than a few Europeans, I gather former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin appears to be the most notable who walked out, pretty much everybody seemed pretty nice to him, which is pretty shameful when you think about the fact that this guy has a warrant with the ICC. Even Victor Orban was there and greeting his old friend, Vlad.
Putin has been especially eager to get his so-called no-limits partnership with China, which has been chilled by the Ukraine War back on track. And the Chinese—they were very strongly warned off by the U.S. and others—haven't become a major weapon supplier to Russia during this war, but there has been some leakage—as they say, delicately ... but has really been a very helpful source of cash and goods for Russia. A third of more Russian oil exports are sold to China, and overall trade between the countries is up really significantly. So he has a lot of reasons why he wants to be cultivating Xi. The Chinese are more ambivalent about Russia. I think Xi was pretty furious about Ukraine. If this, you know ... He had a visit from Putin, and then Putin didn't tell him it was going to happen. I think he saw this as really reckless.
Xi likes being in the power seat, however, and, you know, rather than being patronized by their once senior partners, the Russians. And this really does put him in the power seat. And he certainly has benefited greatly from the Western cap on Russian oil prices. They love the bargain. And I read in the Times a really interesting fact. One out of every two cars sold in Russia today comes from China, and China had absolutely no market share before this. So China's benefiting economically from this. But at the same time, Xi's pretty ambivalent about Putin. He wants to be accepted in all of... Xi that is, wants to be accepted in all of the best capitals, so an overly tight embrace of Putin wouldn't be good for him.
This week the two of them were the best of buds. They were doing the champion of the Global South routine at the BRI, talking about sanctions and about how the West was so exclusionary and how they would never do that. And they had pretty much the same rap when they were up on stage for this. I found Putin's statement particularly... He said ... talked about how economic progress that respects "civilizational diversity and the right of each country to its own model of development" is what he was committed to.
And for the man who is destroying Ukraine, that's pretty rich. So that was his thing: looking for friends and, unfortunately, probably finding them in this meeting. As for Lavrov going to North Korea, that's the same thing: looking for friends in all the wrong places. You know, the North Koreans probably have at least as many or more sanctions on them, and they've been cultivating the Russians, Russians have been cultivating them. The North Koreans want technology for Moscow. We've talked about that. And Moscow wants munitions from North Korea. The Russian defense minister went to North Korea in July. We saw pictures of him being escorted by Kim through a weapons expo. We know that Kim met with Putin. This has been going on for a while.
And so I think this is going ahead and apparently bearing fruit because the White House last week said that they had pictures that they shared of North Korea was sending, what they said, were more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and ammunition to Russia for use in Ukraine. Of course, we don't know what was inside those containers, but that's what they say. But there are also independent researchers who have released satellite photos showing rail and shipping traffic between North Korea and Russia is up. And what does Russia need and what does North Korea have? And North Korea's not going to be sending them iPhones. They're probably sending them munitions.
And this is occurring during a week when it was reported that on the Ukraine battlefront, Ukraine was able to use some of its longer range capabilities, provided by the United States in particular, to hit into Russia in ways that Putin shrugged off, but that defense analysts say are significant and bear watching. So that war grinds on. It got a little bit sidelined, obviously, because of the gravity of what's happening in Gaza. But you're right to pay attention to what Russia's got going on because they are trying to stick to their mission, which is basically to completely eliminate Ukraine as an independent state.
One thing that Putin and Xi have in common is that they, you know, they're very much interested in cultivating the Global South, and very much interested in cultivating the oil-producing states. So they have taken their positions on this conflict. ... Tougher for Russia, which has been cultivating Israel, and Israel has been cultivating Russia for a long time. But very forceful on the, "We're not the United States, we don't believe in sanctions, you know, let's sit on the fence, if anything, on lots of these other conflicts."
And in a period of time in which we are in this situation, in which we're trying to find a way for restraint in Gaza, in which we're trying to support Ukraine, and then you see a celebration in Beijing with Putin on that stage, one can get pretty discouraged about that. But in the end of the day, you have to shrug and hope that the Ukrainians will push forward and the U.S. Congress will do the right thing.
Now, one upcoming international gathering that Putin will definitely not be at, and Xi will be, by all appearances, is the APEC summit in San Francisco. So that is coming around the corner, we'll be talking about that in a few weeks.
So Bob, it's time to discuss our audience figure of the week. This is the figure listeners vote on every Tuesday and Wednesday at cfr_org's Instagram story. And this week, Bob, our audience selected "9,000 Killed by Conflict in Sudan." How has this reached such an incredibly high number?
In part because of all the things we've been talking about elsewhere in this podcast, Carla, that have been taking up time and attention of some international actors that could potentially be trying to bring an end to this in terms of forging ahead with diplomacy between two main forces here, which is Sudan's military and the RSF paramilitary.
What's also happened, and it's equally disturbing, is that this has spread far beyond Khartoum, where it was the principal focus of fighting initially. And I think a lot of people recall the, you know, seeing bombs being dropped over the city, and people were sharing footage of it and everything. Well, now it's spread quite a bit, including, really distressingly, to Darfur, which has seen one genocide this century and could be seeing another one. I would note, there was a recent report that was also captured on a podcast by The Economist which involving interviews with a number of people who have fled, Darfuris who have fled, to Chad, the neighboring Chad, and talking about what they were subjected to, and it's just really difficult to listen to.
That 9,000 figure is in addition to four and a half million people now internally displaced, one point two million as refugees in countries like Chad, and, you know, something like twenty-five million or so people, or more than half of the country's population, needing some sort of humanitarian aid. And it's at a time when humanitarian agencies are stretched and are saturated with appeals. We just talked about Afghanistan's devastating earthquake, which killed more than two thousand people in a country that was already on its heels. We're talking about a climate-driven famine and other conflicts that have caused migration to surge across the Mediterranean, to surge across the U.S. southern border, and in other places. So it is just coming at a very difficult time to muster some sort of action. But sometimes when you cite round figures like 9,000, it does focus attentions more. And maybe we could get some more ramp up of diplomacy, Carla, but it's not clear whether this thing can be ended anytime soon.
So I'm glad you mentioned the diplomacy because remember when we talked about this quite a while ago, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were involved in trying to negotiate ceasefires. Did they just give up?
I think they got sidelined by other things. I'm not sure. It's not that it was an easy round of diplomacy, but they were steadily trying to press the parties into creating ceasefire and then some sort of ground for resolution. I think the problem is, it gets more and more complicated as it spreads around the country, and then you start to get into these genocidal areas where you have this recurrence of what we had seen in Darfur with the Arab Sudanese militias against black African ethnic groups and it becoming genocidal, and that makes it even more challenging but also more imperative that there'd be some kind of international intervention.
We should also note, as we also have discussed, it is sometimes beyond individual nation-state brokers; the UN Security Council can kind of step in. Security Council has shown again and again in recent years with this Chinese-Russian bloc evermore firm and, sort of, what they will allow and won't allow, that they're just—you're not seeing effective action out of the UN Security Council. And on top of it all, they're meeting in urgent session to deal with places like Gaza and so forth. So, I think it's a bit of fatigue. I think it's a bit of distraction. And again, we would hope that there would be an opportunity to sort of step back in, get the parties to the table, and start to set in motion something. But it's going to need to involve, I think, peacekeeping, and that's another area that's been really stretched.
Well, that's our look at another turbulent world next week. Here are some stories to keep an eye on. President Biden will be hosting in the week ahead. First, he's going to host top EU officials, and then Australian Prime Minister Albanese for an official visit and state dinner.
Ooh, are we going to get an invitation?
I'm looking out for it Carla. Also next week, Saudi investment conference referred to as "Davos in the Desert" takes place in Riyadh.
I don't want an invitation. I'm just going to stop right there.
Please subscribe to The World Next Week on Apple Podcasts and Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a review while you're at it. We appreciate the feedback. If you'd like to reach out, please email us at [email protected]. The publications mentioned in this episode—and there are a lot of them, they're worth taking a look at—as well as the transcript of our conversation are listed on the podcast page for The World Next Week on CFR.org. Please note that opinions expressed on The World Next Week are solely those of the hosts, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
Today's program was produced by Ester Fang, with Director of Podcasting Gabrielle Sierra. Special thanks to Sinet Adous and Kaitlyn Esperon for their research assistance. Our theme music is provided by Markus Zakaria. This is Carla Robbins saying so long.
And this is Bob McMahon saying goodbye, and be careful out there.
Mentioned on the Podcast
Keith Bradsher, Anatoly Kurmanaev, and David Pierson, “Putin Visits China to Bolster Ties With ‘My Friend,’ Xi,” New York Times
Christina Bouri and Diana Roy, “The Israel-Hamas War: The Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza,” CFR.org
Steven A. Cook, “Will Egypt Play a Role in Easing the Gaza War?,” CFR.org
Steven A. Cook, “Why the U.S. Tolerates Qatar’s Hamas Ties,” Foreign Policy
Shannon K. O’Neil and Will Freeman, “Latin America This Week: September 20, 2023,” CFR.org
“President Joe Biden: The 2023 60 Minutes Interview,” 60 Minutes
David J. Scheffer, “What International Law Has to Say About the Israel-Hamas War,” CFR.org
“The Genocide That No One’s Talking About,” The Intelligence