TRAGEDY IN THE SKY, POLITICS ON THE GROUND

In the days since the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max jet on Sunday, governments around the world have ordered airlines to ground that model until more is known about the causes of the accident. After all, it is the second time that Boeing's top-selling late model jet has gone down in less than six months.

This is first and foremost a human tragedy – and one that hit home for your Wednesday Signal author, who has friends and acquaintances who lost people in the crash. But the global response carries some strong political undercurrents.


For one thing, the first country to suspend 737 Max flights was China, which happens also to be Boeing's most important market for the aircraft. Chinese aviation authorities may have legitimate questions about the plane's safety, but amid a deep trade spat with the US, Beijing is also keenly aware that the flight ban – which quickly spread to more than a dozen other countries – puts huge pressure on Boeing, one of the largest US manufacturing companies.

Second, the countries that have grounded the new 737 did so despite assurances from the US-based Federal Aviation Administration that the aircraft is still airworthy, given actions taken in the wake of the earlier crash and the early stage of the investigation into the latest incident. That's unusual. For decades, the FAA has set the agenda for the safety and regulation of the global aviation industry. Is that changing? The decision of so many countries – including key US allies in Europe – to ground the plane, despite the US regulator saying it has yet to uncover any "systemic performance issue" that would merit such a move, is "almost a rebellion against the FAA" as one astonished industry watcher told Bloomberg. While it's too soon to tell if the FAA's global clout is lastingly weakened, cracks have appeared in what was once simply assumed to be an area in which the US held global regulatory sway. Sound familiar?

Lastly, it doesn't help the FAA – or Boeing for that matter – that several US lawmakers and two big US flight attendants' unions also called on Tuesday to ground 737 Max flights, or that President Trump tweeted in to complain that today's fly-by-wire jets are "far too complex to fly." The President and lawmakers probably felt pressure to say something, given public concern and other governments' reactions to the crash. But it fits a broader pattern in American politics of distrusting experts and taking cues from social media that everyone seems to be jumping into panic mode instead of citing US commercial aviation's safety record or urging the public to wait for the facts to come in.

We'll find out more about the specific cause of this tragedy as investigators (largely from the US, as it happens) examine evidence from the crash site. But in the meantime, it's worth considering the ways in which the aftermath of the crash is reverberating into broader geopolitical themes of the day.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will arrive in Rome tomorrow ready to plant a flag in the heart of Europe. Italy is expected to break with most other advanced economies by formally signing onto Beijing's $1.3 trillion global Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure initiative.

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As you read this, US-backed Syrian and Kurdish forces are killing or capturing the last few Islamic State militants holding out in a fingernail-shaped sliver of riverbank in eastern Syria. It's all that remains of the caliphate declared by the Islamist extremist group across a swath of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.

Despite being on the back foot territorially, here are three ways that ISIS will continue to rile global politics:

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What we are watching

A retiring strongman in Kazakhstan – Since 1989, one man has ruled the massive, oil-rich Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. That is, until yesterday, when Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president and put a close ally in charge until new elections are called. The 78-year old Kazakh leader was rumored to have been planning a transition for more than two years, putting allies in key posts, weakening the power of the presidency, and bolstering the clout of the country's Security Council, which he will still head. But the exact timing came as a surprise. We're watching this story – not just because it's a rare example of a strongman leaving power of his own will, but because we suspect Vladimir Putin is watching, too. The hardy 66-year-old Russian leader needs to figure out what he'll do when his current term expires in 2024. The constitution says Putin can't run again. Is Nazarbayev charting a path that Putin can follow?

A suspicious death in Italy – Italian authorities are investigating the suspicious demise of Imane Fadil, a 34-year-old Moroccan model who died in Milan earlier this month – apparently with high levels of toxic metals in her blood that could indicate poisoning. Fadil was a frequent guest at ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's infamous bunga-bunga sex parties, and was a key witness in his 2013 trial on underage sex allegations. Adding to the intrigue, Fadil was due to testify at another upcoming court case. Apart from all of this, her death could have an immediate impact on Italian politics: Italy's right-wing Lega party is now less likely to call a snap election this summer, because the Fadil case taints Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the group that Lega would ideally like to team up with in order to gain a majority in parliament.

What we are ignoring

The Scent of Fascism – In a new commercial out of Israel, a beautiful woman glides through arty black and white scenes like a model, purring about putting new limits on the judiciary, and spritzing herself with a perfume called "fascism." Hot stuff, right? But this isn't just a sultry model hawking a designer fragrance – it's the country's right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has incensed the left with her bid to curtail the power of courts, which she says are too liberal. At the end of the spoof ad, which is meant to promote her New Right party ahead of upcoming elections, Skaked takes whiff of the perfume and tells viewers: "Smells like democracy to me." We are ignoring this bid to put her party's name back in the headlines because the fascism joke just isn't funny.

Devin Nunes' Mom – Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, has filed a lawsuit seeking $250 million in damages against a Twitter personality who goes by the handle @DevinNunesMom, other users of the popular messaging platform, and Twitter itself. According to a copy of the complaint uploaded by Fox News, Nunes, the ardent Trump supporter who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, says @DevinNunesMom engaged in slander by calling him "presidential fluffer and swamp rat," and claiming he was "voted Most Likely To Commit Treason in high school," among other digital insults. The suit also accused Twitter of suppressing conservative viewpoints – an argument that other Republicans have used to put political pressure on the company. We'll be watching how that argument plays out, but we are ignoring @DevinNunesMom. Judging by the massive jump in followers that @DevinNunesMom has received since the case was filed, by the time this is all over, we're pretty sure Congressman Nunes will wish he had done so, too.