Ahh the joys of half-remembered college courses! This week’s video is about Syria, but it’s also about the concept of agenda-setting, something I barely remember from my Political Science classes, back in Ann Arbor around the turn of the century. I couldn’t track down the book, or even the exact concept I was remembering, and I fear I may have made a bit of a hash of it. The video communicates what I wanted to say, but I think I mixed the concepts of agenda-setting and attention in a way that may not fit the model I learned back then.
Attention, what we pay attention to, individually and as a country is a very important concept, and one that I play with a lot on this channel. Agenda-setting, as I remember, is a good deal drier. There are a number of stakeholders in government and society that compete to bring about legislative action. Social media and our great orange president change the calculus. It may actually make sense to include the attention span of the individual voter, and that voter’s media consumption habits in any discussion of agenda-setting today.
I’m not sure that clarified anything, but I wanted to at least mention that the version of “agenda-setting” here may not fit what my professor was talking about. I remain very proud of today’s video however.
One of the most important aspects of development in Saudi Arabia, and in the Gulf more broadly, is the fact that it often doesn’t happen. The Gulf countries are mostly run by monarchs, and they all have pharaonic ambitions. They want to build monuments, cities, and other great works that illustrate their magnificence. If it’s something as simple as a museum or giving a foreign university a local campus it happens. But the great ambitions that mix local development, innovation, or anything else that requires real buy-in from the people of the country, either never happen, or happen in such a small way as to make the initial announcements look ridiculous.
When NEOM, the 500 billion USD sustainable city was announced, I couldn’t help but think of the UAE’s Masdar city. It was announced with similar fanfare back in 2006. It was going to be green, it was going to be amazing, there were going to be tons of people there! Parts of Masdar did end up being built, but most of the plan was scrapped, and the Guardian now describes it as in danger of becoming a ghost town. Masdar isn’t the only hi-tech wonderland city that never was. Saudi Arabia has one too. Anybody remember King Abdullah Technology City? It was the last king’s NEOM. It was still moving along, or at least reported to be so back in 2015.
And that’s the important bit here. All of this constant churn of projects seems to be done more for a foreign press audience than to create real change in Saudi Arabia. I don’t doubt the sincerity of any of the Saudi Royal reformers, I just doubt their ability. The world press gives them a free pass on all of this. Almost none of the articles reporting on NEOM mentioned King Abdullah city or Masdar. Actually, now that Abdullah is dead, his city seems to have disappeared from the news completely. It’s clear that it’s now longer a public relations priority, and I’d guess that the 100 billion that is supposed to build that city is now quickly moving on to MBS’s NEOM. This is not a good way to run anything. But the Saudis get a pass from the world press. Today’s video, on the ridiculousness of the Saudi Aramco IPO is an attempt to push back on that a bit.
Over the past year Saudi Arabia has experienced a perfect storm of factors in its favor. Asset prices in the US economy and elsewhere have gone nuts. Saudi Arabia is a country that owns a lot of stock, land and everything else, so that’s been very helpful. On the oil market front, the most important front there is for Saudi Arabia, they’ve had unprecedented cooperation on the OPEC production slow-down, and a series of competitors have given up millions of barrels a day in production due to sundry wars and dictatorships.
If Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plans for the future were ever going to work, 2017 would have been the year for it. But as this video shows, some of the key metrics that illustrate the hole Saudi Arabia is in haven’t changed much at all. As I said in last year’s video, and as I repeat in today’s video… Saudi Arabia is still finished.
Today’s video talks about the ambivalent approach to the use of power we see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Marvel movies are often as much about how great power hurts itself and what it aims to protect as they are about bad guys. The video lays out that the DC movies have none of this subtlety. As I think more about it though, I think I was too easy on the DC movies. These films are pro-US power, and even pro-torture in a very Trumpian, Fox News way.
A couple years back, with a review of Batman V. Superman, I talked about the main influence on the DC movies, a guy named Frank Miller. Frank Miller is an undisputed genius, but he’s got a world view that is deeply rooted in the 1980s. His vision is of a world that is being torn apart at the seams. In Miller’s world we need powerful people to do what’s necessary to face “evil” no matter the cost. This vision of the world made a lot of sense in the 1980s, with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, and with US cities falling into an abyss of crime and drugs.
I am writing this from the heart of New York City, a place that is now safer than it was in the 1950s. Despite the US’s careful cultivation of rogue states, and the ever present threat of a dirty bomb, nobody expects human civilization to be wiped out anymore. I hate to throw this word around, but from this perspective, Miller’s vision looks more than a bit fascist. And that’s the perspective the DC films have adopted. Evil is everywhere. Power must confront it. And that power should not be questioned. You can see this world-view on Fox News every day, and you can see it in the speeches of Donald Trump.
After the critical and financial failures of Batman V. Superman, and Suicide Squad, the Warner Brothers corporate offices mandated that the films get more “optimistic”. But this pro-power perspective has continued in the DC movies, regardless. Last year’s “sunnier” Wonder Woman takes place during World War I. The film-makers don’t know anything about World War I, so they just portray the Germans as Nazis. This fits with the US foreign policy establishment’s lionization of Woodrow Wilson, and insistence that US power is always used for good. As someone who would love to see pop culture reckon more seriously (or at all) with World War I, I was pretty disappointed.
I may be over analyzing things here. The DC movies have been a mess, top to bottom, since Christopher Nolan finished his last Batman film back in 2012. But there are a lot of really, really bad ideas floating around in that soup of crap…
I still believe that China will never be able to be a hegemon the way that the British were and the US still is today. I firmly believe that it’s possible for the world to survive the rise of China without World War III.
But that doesn’t mean that the rivalry won’t exist. China will be dominant in Asia by the end of the century, and it is very, very likely to be the richest and most powerful country in the world by that point as well. The question, as I’ve said before, is how we get there. Will it be peacefully, or after another war? I believe that continued growth in the United States is necessary to meet that peaceful result. China won’t be tempted to assert itself militarily if it doesn’t think it can win, so the US needs to fade slowly. Which means it needs to keep growing…
Perspective is an important thing. Dad has been living in the NYC area for 40 years, and staring out of the same office window for almost 30. He’s noticed something very cool, and with this week’s video he tells us about it…
Occasionally I’ll embark on the 15-20 hour process of making a video, and then something happens that throws things in a new light. I still stand 100% behind today’s video, but if I’d known that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was going to weigh in, I probably would have incorporated a response. He’s a serious guy. I’ll have to respond here.
It’s easy for me to dismiss a lot of Mattis’s letter due to some pretty fundamental strategic and philosophical differences I have with him that regular viewers of this channel will be familiar with. Mattis believes that Saudi Arabia is a worthwhile partner in counter-terrorism. I do not believe that. Mattis believes that Iran is more of a threat to the US and the world than Saudi Arabia is. I do not believe that. Because Mattis believes these things I do not believe, he presents a narrative for the Yemeni war that strikes me as deeply flawed. If you’ve got a half hour or so, I set out a counter-narrative, that actually reckons with Yemeni history, unlike the standard Iran-Saudi proxy war fairy tale we’re told.
But there’s one concern that Mattis brings up that I can’t dismiss. He claims that ending US cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen will make the humanitarian situation worse. I’m worried about this as well. Taking the US out of the equation is likely to degrade Saudi Arabia’s ability to continue the war long term, but I suspect it is also likely to make the Saudis more brutal. The 5,295 civilians that have been killed so far (Human Rights Watch), are probably the result of fairly targeted bombing. Saudi bombing is likely to have killed most of these civilians, but US expertise has probably put a bit of a cap on the body count. I’m no expert on warfare, but I was already worried about this. Having Mattis, one of the world’s greatest experts on warfare, express this opinion makes me more worried. But it does not give me pause.
More people may die by bombing, but Saudi Arabia’s ability to besiege the country will be seriously degraded. Millions are less likely to be at risk of starvation or cholera. And if Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen becomes more brutal it will also become less sustainable. A key point that I neglected to include in this video, and rarely gets included in the standard litany (“refueling, targeting, intelligence”) of goods the US provides to Saudi Arabia is diplomatic cover. It is a profoundly weird thing that Saudi Arabia is doing. Saudi Arabia is invading and destroying its neighbor. This sort of thing doesn’t happen much in the 21st century, or even in the second half of the 20th century. Most wars are civil. The few examples of cross-border invasion I can think of post Cold War are only possible because of US support. If the resolution passes in the Senate next week, and gets through the House, Saudi Arabia won’t just lose technical support, it will lose that diplomatic cover.
Without US support the war in Yemen will instantly become exponentially more cancerous for the Saudi re-branding effort than it already is. MBS and the Saudi government desperately need investors for their oil company’s years-delayed IPO, and that new tech city they announced last fall. Try doing that when US media and government are no longer covering up the war in Yemen.
I’m afraid that Mattis may be right about the immediate humanitarian costs of cutting off US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. But continuing on the way we have for another two years would be much, much worse.
I wanted to address another aspect of the comparison between Pakistan and Turkey that the cursed article I talk about in today’s video mentions briefly. The article does concede that Pakistan’s dictator led Islamification under Zia ul-Haq was a completely different example than the attempts at Islamification currently being carried out by Turkey’s elected president Erdogan. As I point out in the video, Pakistan remains desperately poor today and this was even more the case in the 1980’s. Zia was using Islam as tool for nation-building. It remains a key part of Pakistan’s sense of itself as a nation today.
As I laid out in my other twovideos on Islam in Turkey, Erdogan does not have the blank slate to work with that Pakistan’s Zia did. Pakistan of course, unlike Saudi Arabia, has an endlessly rich and varied history. But very few among a population that mostly couldn’t read, and was living on the brink of starvation, were able to benefit from that history and culture. Turkey has a very distinct sense of nationalism that is quite separate from Islam, and that is internalized across the population. No matter how powerful Erdogan becomes, he will not be able to eradicate those underpinnings.
One of the best things about my quixotic attempt to cover everything is the way different geographies and times inform my coverage of other places. It’s probably the amount of time I spend looking at 19th century history, and the modern Middle East, that allows me to look at modern Europe in ways that others don’t. It’s not just the EU that makes 21st century Europe a more peaceful place than those other places, but it’s a huge, huge part of it. People are letting that aspect of EU stability fade away, unlamented, and almost unnoticed.
Another issue this video highlights is the reductiveness of the standard view of Europe. My alarmism about the stability of Europe looks ridiculous if you focus on Germany, or France, or even the UK, where the issue of separatism is handled quite politely. But those countries were rarely the main problem with Europe. It was always petty revolutions and squabbles of the smaller countries that made Europe such a dangerous place. If you look for the consequences of the EU’s current weakness in the EU’s core countries you won’t see much, but if you look East, or Southwest, as we do in today’s video, the developing problems become obvious.
With today’s video I return to the topic of Europe for the first time in a while. The EU is something I take rather seriously. Those who remember how much I flipped out about Brexit know how seriously. This is surprising to many. What self respecting US conservative can be for the survival of the European Union? One who really doesn’t want to see US soldiers fighting in Europe again. There’s no question that the current EU, run from Brussels is an unaccountable, bureaucratic, overly socialist mess. But it’s a lot better than what came before it.
The EU wasn’t formally established until 1993, but it has its origins in the European Coal and Steel community, going back to 1951. I may not agree with the specific goals pursued, but the platform for unity and peace that the EU and its predecessor provided is undeniable. This has had positive security effects as well. People like to talk about NATO, but NATO is happy to welcome shaky dictatorships. It’s the EU that makes applicants jump through hoops and prove their democratic credentials. I laid all this out in a video a few years back…