It’s easy to get pessimistic about the US-Saudi relationship. I’ve just spent 15 videos illustrating its many evils, and the incredible costs it has imposed on the world. The amount of money involved is staggering, and generations of US government officials are complicit in this tragedy. But I really do believe it’s about to end. That’s why I started this series with a video entitled “Saudi Arabia Is Finished“. This problem won’t end because of virtue, or justice. It won’t even end because somebody in power makes a decision. It will end because of economics and an inexorable shift in the political calculus.
This week I illustrate this process by talking about another “eternal” lobby. For decades Big Tobacco ruled Washington, DC. Long after everyone knew that cigarettes were lethal, it was business as usual for the large corporations that made them. They owned the congressmen, and they had the money, so things barely changed. They funded think tanks and studies that denied the truth, or tried to hide it. Sure their incredible privilege was slowly chipped away. TV advertising was banned. In the 1980’s it became more difficult to smoke in public buildings. These small losses were easy to ignore, because the relationships were strong, and the US government knew where its bread was buttered. Sort of like a nuclear deal with Iran actually. And then in the 1990s it all changed.
The dragon was slain. Big Tobacco still exists. But in the 1990s they had to admit the lethality and addictiveness of their product. They had to shutter their fake science institutes. They were forced to pay some of the cost of the public health disaster they had created, and they were forced to fund a massive public relations campaign designed to destroy their market. It’s been fairly effective. Only 15% of US citizens are still smoking, down five percent from just a decade ago. Sure, much of their marketing budget and nefariousness moved overseas, but that’s slipping away now too. This video lays out how Saudi Arabia is experiencing it’s own Tobacco moment as we speak. It may not be obvious, but it is happening. Not because of truth or justice, but because the political calculus is shifting.
I don’t know much about the environment. I don’t even know if I think the Paris Climate Change Agreement was a good idea. But I do know that now that it exists, abandoning it is crazy. Whether you are a climate skeptic, or a climate enthusiast, the US seat at the table was vital. The agreement, as toothless as it is at the moment, is unprecedented for the scope of international participation involved. 15 years ago when Bush threw over the Kyoto protocol, it didn’t really matter. Some Europeans whined, and the developing countries were happy to do away with a possible constraint on growth. The picture today couldn’t be any more different. 195 countries have signed up for this agreement. China and India are enthusiastically on board. This is the direction the world is going. And the US has decided to go hide in the corner.
It’s embarrassing and it’s exactly the sort of thing that makes Trump’s presidency so damaging. The United States still has enough power left to keep acting like this through four or even eight years of a Trump presidency. But it’s the worst possible way to spend our last years as a hegemonic power. Today we still have enough power to ignore what the rest of the world wants. But that’s changing. The difference between the Kyoto protocol and Paris Climate accords show that very clearly. The world has tremendous resentment towards its lone superpower. Up until today they didn’t have a body to express that resentment through. US power means we dominate any club we belong to. Trump just gave the world a universal club, free of US influence. This will not be good for my country. Sad!
For years I’ve been mildly fascinated by Switzerland. In the US we mostly know it for a variety of banking scandals, but there’s a lot more going on there. It’s been independent for centuries, and is famous for being a very well run and boring place. I believe there is a lot in the model to admire. From the direct democracy, to the lack of personality driven politics, to the emphasis on the local, there’s a lot that I’d like to see more of in the United States.
Today I was lucky enough to chat with Quentin Adler, a Swiss attorney and political activist, about the Swiss system, its many benefits and few drawbacks. Quentin is the president of Service Citoyen, an association focused on reforming the Swiss obligation to serve the country. I learned a lot from our conversation, and I hope you do too.
Immigration is complicated. Donald Trump’s wall is not. It’s a really dumb idea. It’s designed to solve a problem that no longer exists. The full range of US policy towards Mexico over the past 20 years has actually been a rousing success. NAFTA played a part, allowing large scale migration played a part, and the incredible efforts of the Mexican people were the most important of all. If it weren’t for the insanity of the US drug war, Mexico would be well on its way to being a fully developed country.
It has a middle class now. A range of businesses are experiencing new success. Mexico is on the way up. As this video points out, the excess labor force has been almost completely employed. This Wall idea, 20 years past the point at which it would have any utility, will drive a wedge between the US and our newly successful neighbor to the South. The fears of pushing Mexico into the arms of China are probably over-blown, but why would we want to risk it? The Wall is a way to further screw up the relationship between the US and Mexico at exactly the wrong time. Furthermore, it’s completely pointless, as this video lays out.
Immigration has been bugging me a lot recently. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and I’m a big fan of more open borders in theory. The more I look into the actual practice of immigration, though, the less I understand. I’m completely convinced that we need more high-skilled workers. I would eventually like to see open borders between the Americas. But I do question why we continue to pack in low skilled workers in an era when low-skilled jobs are disappearing. It’s a puzzle. There is a lot more research I need to do. But I do know that the Wall is a really bad idea. Which is why I waded into these uncertain waters. To be continued…
“Turkey is Turning into Saudi Arabia” is a bit of a straw man, but it’s something I have actually heard. Looking into why this statement is incredibly silly is helpful though, and that’s exactly what today’s video does. One of the central problems of Saudi Arabia is that there was very little there before there was Oil. When Ibn Saud took Mecca and Medina in the 1920s he reportedly did it with an army of 5,000. As recently as 1960 there were still only 4 million Saudi Arabians. There are around 30 million today, and their entire lives, and parents lives, have been lived in the context of this medieval state. The Universities are all Wahhabi, because they’ve always been Wahhabi. There weren’t any universities (give or take one or two) 50 years ago.
Turkey only had around 19 million people in the 1920s. But there was already a range of universities, and a very complex and almost first world history of institutions and learning from the Ottoman Empire. The Turks have developed for the past 90 years in the context of secularism, and at least surface competition in a national- European context. That simply can’t be eradicated. The form of Islam that Erdogan and the AK party is pushing isn’t Saudi. It can’t be. That particular pathology is only possible with endless oil resources, and a pre-modern blank slate.
The secular elites are being culled from Turkey’s institutions. But Turkey can’t close itself off completely. The Secular elites that control most business in the country are probably showing up at the mosque more often, but they’re still there, and they still believe in what they, their parents and grandparents have always believed. The recent constitutional referendum actually showed some green shoots. Erdogan lost all the major urban centers of power, including Ankara and Istanbul. In the last election he won both those districts handily. Don’t get me wrong. Turkey is in for a rough decade or two. But the bones of that house are good. At the end of the day Erdogan needs international engagement and business. And a lot of the people who he needs for that will never fit into even his version of Islam. Also, the longer the AK party(Erdogan) is on top, the more western and cosmopolitan they become. I’ve partied a fair amount with high profile AK party members and their kids. Saudi Arabia isn’t going to happen in Turkey.
Our discussion was wide-ranging and topical, moving from Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, to ISIS, Manchester and the current unrest in Bahrain. Davidson’s deep knowledge of the area, and insightful analysis shed new light on issues in Iran, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and a few countries I’m probably forgetting to mention. The success of Shadow Wars indicates that their is an appetite for commentary that moves out of the typical range of Military Industrial Complex approved discussion. I’d highly suggest you listen to this discussion and then head straight out and buy yourself a copy of his book…
We certainly heard a lot about Trump and Saudi Arabia this weekend. Considering the content of this channel, it won’t surprise you to hear that I found it disappointing, and disturbing. But more than anything else it was distracting. This whole trip was a distraction from Trump’s woes back in Washington, DC. But Trump’s Saudi Arabia clown show was also a distraction from something we should have all been paying more attention to. It was good news for once!
It was all a tremendous distraction from Iran. After months of predictions that he would lose, Iran’s moderate president Hassan Rouhani triumphed in his re-election campaign. Iran chose openness, despite the repeated rejections and abuse hurled at them by the United States. This is a very big deal. The hardliners that have ruled Iran since the revolution continue to abuse power. It makes me believe that peace in the region might finally really (eventually) be possible.
But nobody paid any attention. Trump and Tillerson issued their customary condemnations of Iran this weekend, calling them out for supporting terror, even while being hosted by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sworn enemy, and the main inspiration behind almost every terror attack of the past 17 years. Tragic stuff. It’s already causing problems for Rouhani back in Iran. This video lays out the details….
Crowd-funded Media is essential. I’d like it if I could continue to do it, but that’s beside the point. We’ve got a lot of great institutions that do essential reporting and analysis. From newspapers, to universities, and even think tanks. But all of these institutions have obvious and hidden stake-holders that they are accountable to. We all know about the way that news organizations have to keep their advertisers happy. But Universities and think tanks have less obvious issues as well. Schools and think tanks are dependent on the US government for a lot of their funding. Schools have rich foreign students to attract. It’s not that this necessarily makes their coverage dishonest, it’s just that they won’t look into certain topics. This excellent New York Times article pointed out how completely large think tanks are owned by sovereign wealth funds and other large players.
None of this is a secret. It just isn’t talked about much. But it’s one of the most important factors impacting the way we see the world. Which is one of the reasons I started the More Freedom Foundation five years ago. I may not be able to continue to do this work, but we need someone to do it. It’s only individuals, and small groups of individuals that can truly look at the world honestly. Today I published a video on why I may be a joke, but I’m a joke worth supporting.
I launched a fund-raising drive last week, and the response has been incredible. We’re a third of the way to the goal just one week into the two month drive! I’m humbled and grateful to all of you, not just those who have chipped in on Patreon. Your views, likes, subscribes, comments and reads make this whole thing possible. So I’ve decided to give away a free essay. “Your War On Drugs, 6,000 Words on the Shame of the Nation” will be available for free for the kindle from May 22nd to May 26th. For those of you without a kindle I’ve attached a pdf version here…
So I’ve finally gotten it together to do a Podcast type thing. Jon Coumes of Safe for Democracy, one of my favorite podcasts, sat down with me to have a wide-ranging conversation. We discussed the “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” video series and essay at great length and got into US policy in Iran, and US foreign policy more generally. Jon is a pretty left-wing guy, and I am not. But when it comes to US foreign policy, we’re pretty much on the same page.
We also cover how essential it is to have independent media voices like ourselves. We may be a little biased on that topic…
You can listen to the podcast from YouTube, or you can download the Mp3 I’ve attached to this post. I hope you enjoy it!
Oh, Sharia. The amount of time I’ve spent dealing with comments on this topic over the past couple weeks is something I shudder to contemplate. We’re supposedly about inspiring democracy and development in the US, but we insist that it only proceed along certain lines. We completely forget that we traveled a long road to get to our current state of gender relations, religious tolerance, and legal rights and obligations. If a developing country doesn’t instantly conform to our 21st century post-industrial set of mores, we reserve the right to panic and insist on changes.
We also ignore the fact that our government has been eagerlyparticipating in the spread of the worst ideas and approaches in Modern Islam. By all means, provide outlets for actual dissidents from these countries, who want to develop a better approach. But we need to look more seriously at our own approach to the Muslim world before we start angrily insisting on our vision of how Islam should be practiced. I find the whole conversation very irritating, which may come across a little too strongly in this video.