Covering FATCA gave the MFF YouTube channel its first big break. But I’ve always disliked bringing it up since then. There’s the fiendish complexity for one thing. But it also smashes so many of the convenient fictions we believe about US power. We like to tell ourselves that the US is just another country. Sure, we’re powerful, and we do what we can to help, but generally we let the world do as it pleases. FATCA makes it clear that very little of that is true.
The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act passed in 2010. It was implemented worldwide in 2014. Throughout this process, I expected there to be international outrage over the way that the law imposed US oversight and control over every bank in the world. The legislation is Imperialist in a very straightforward way. Surely, the world couldn’t possibly let us get away with it? But they have.
This video covers an enforcement action carried out last week in India. Millions of Indians were required to fill out a form or lose the use of their bank accounts. This wasn’t too onerous a requirement, and while it certainly caused some stress, it probably didn’t destroy any lives. But that’s not the point. Millions of Indians were required to do something last week, on their own soil, by US law. American Empire is very real, and very ignored. FATCA may be the most egregious bit of law-driven US empire. But then again it may not be. It could be the tip of the Iceberg. The complexity of bureaucracy and modern life itself keeps us from knowing…
Donald Trump’s proclamations of Fake News are often unfair, and are always meant to distract from his extraordinary failings as a president. But sometimes he’s got a point. This story, about the woman convicted for laughing at Jeff Sessions, is one example. The basic fact may be true. It was laughing, and the disorderly conduct that followed it, that got this woman convicted. But that’s not the way it is being used.
It’s being used as the sign of creeping authoritarianism, or the idea that Washington, DC is changing in an important way. What’s more authoritarian than a trial for laughter!?!? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that that is not the case. In fact, I was a juror, in a trial for exactly this sort of thing in the Obama administration. Needless to say, there were no mainstream media stories about the evils and authoritarianism stemming from that case. This video tells that story.
As any familiarity with my channel will tell you, I am deeply committed to opposing Donald Trump. What I am aware of, that few people at the Washington Post, or the Democratic National Committee seem to be aware of, is the fact that we need to persuade people who don’t agree with us to slay this dragon. When Trump gets up there and shouts “Fake News!” it shouldn’t be this easy for his followers to believe him. There’s this idea that his supporters are all anti-rational resentment bots who will support him no matter what. There’s certainly some of that. But I know plenty of smart people who find his approach interesting, if embarrassing, and are on the fence. A media that does exactly what Trump says it does, and produces “Fake News” like this, is not going to get the “Trump-curious” on our side of the fence.
The popularity of the Shia Sunni “Eternal Hatreds” myth is mostly about Iraq. It’s a bit sad really. The power of this meme comes from the desperate wish of the American thinking classes to find anything else to blame for Iraq. And Syria as well. If these two groups are destined to fight each other forever, then hey, it’s not really our fault. Bloody, endless warfare is just the natural state of the Middle East! Pay no attention to the fact that we isolated and brutalized Iraq for a decade, before destroying its government completely. Pay no attention to the funding and support we’ve been fire-hosing towards Sunni militants in Syria. This was all going to happen anyway!
I find the whole concept of religious war to be a bit over-sold. The standard go-to comparison from European history for the modern middle east is the 30 years war in 17th century Europe. In that war the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor went after some Protestant princes and 30 years later 25-30% of the German people had been killed. The Catholic-Protestant divide certainly had a lot to do with this conflict, but is that what it was really about? Not really. Catholic France spent a lot of time helping Protestant princes because they didn’t like the Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire had gotten along for most of a century with both Protestant and Catholic princes and regions. The war was started by, and perpetuated by political actors who saw more opportunities for land and power. Sure, some of the actors were primarily motivated by religion, but not many. And even the most vocally religious actors, like Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant king of Sweden, and Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor, were pursuing very non-spiritual aims. Ferdinand’s attempt to impose Catholicism Empire wide was as much about administrative consistency and control as it was about doctrine.
This is all to say that war is a complicated state, and it’s never just about one thing. Wars can attain a life of their own. The roving mercenary bands of the 30 years war weren’t interested in conclusive battles, because that would mean an end to contracts and pillage. I fear that we may be reaching that stage in the Middle East at the moment. Throwing up our hands, and insisting on a simple religious explanation will not help us avoid that unhappy result.
We hear a lot about the problems of Islam. But the picture is always incomplete. One side of the conversation insists that Islam is evil and backward, and there is nothing to be done. The other side says nice things, and quietly mutters something about development, while running off to cash Saudi checks and bomb another Muslim country. There is something wrong with Islam. But it’s not in the Koran or the Hadith. As with many things, it’s a simple question of politics and development. This video lays out the real story.
I’m very pleased with this one. It gets back to my old obsession with European history, and the lessons that Europe’s development has for everybody else’s. A real historian will tell you that this is dangerous and reductive. But hey! This is a YouTube channel! There is one claim made towards the end of the video that I feel like I should back up and maybe qualify a bit. France and England ended up as the dominant powers in Europe for a while, and in the world as well. They were also the only two European powers that had the wherewithal to make real world-wide empire viable. Spain and Portugal certainly did some Empire-ing, but they squandered their first mover advantage with some Medieval ideas about finance, and their empires were vestigial more than anything else. The Iberian countries only held onto the bits of their empire that nobody else wanted. The Dutch Republic got the finance right, but their small size and vulnerability kept them from competing as a first rate power after their individual golden age. In the video I kinda, sorta claim that the relative religious tolerance of France and The UK made them dominant. Obviously there’s a lot more to it. But I really do think that their relative openness made a real difference. Also, thanks to the Louis kings, France has a reputation for religious intolerance. But Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes, decreeing toleration, lasted for most of the crucial 18th century, and Louis XIV’s revocation stood for barely a century, ending with the Revolution. French history is awesome, which is why I have a playlist dedicated to it.
I expect I’ll be playing with the theme of toleration more as this series continues. Saudi influence is already fading. Even if the Saudi state somehow survives, the rising fortunes of other Islamic countries means that its influence is slipping away day by day. But the attractions of extremism and religious rigor will remain. It’s always a seductive idea, both in the religious context and outside of it. “If only we stuck to our principles in a more rigorous and violent way, everything would be fine!”. As every civilization fails, there’s somebody tied to the mast screaming that.
The more I read history, the less convinced I am that that’s the right way to approach things. I’m still a conservative, mostly because I believe that the principles and institutions of the United States are uniquely worth preserving. But it’s fascinating how fanaticism kills everything, from the Byzantines, to the Nazis. When a civilization goes in whole hog for imagined traditional principles, it’s almost always on the way out. So even leaving aside the violence and tragedy of extremism, it’s becoming clear to me that it doesn’t even work. I’m not sure if that makes any sense. I’ll try to make this clearer in future videos. Until then, enjoy this one!
My roommates’ epic quest to hydrate and find out why I’ve got a mad-on for Syria continues. I think this video is a helpful jumping off point for the next steps in the series. We’ll be stepping out of the desert, and leaving Saudi Arabia behind as much as we can. The question of the problems of the Middle East, and the supposedly “eternal hatreds” of the Sunni-Shia divide will be our focus in the coming weeks.
This is our seventh video this week! That’s a feat I’ve certainly never managed before. It’s been quite a journey. The videos are doing quite well, and I’ve sold a respectable pile of essays. The comments sections are probably my favorite bit. I’m having a series of unusually civil conversations with a range of people interested in the topic. Multiple Saudi Arabians, angry old people who have watched too much Fox News, Swedes concerned about Immigration, and others across the world have chimed in. Even better, I think I’m changing minds. A quick tour through the essay reviews on Amazon will show you that.
There’s one dimension on which this project is failing unfortunately. And that’s the financial one. I’ve sold a bunch of essays, and that’s very satisfying, but it doesn’t come to a total that makes up for the year I spent developing the project. For the past three months, this has been all I have done. In the coming weeks I’m going to have to step up my free-lancing. I may have to take the extreme step of seeking a full-time job. If I do that, I’ll be going from producing 7 videos a week to producing 7 videos a year. I don’t want that, but after three years of trying to make this work, it’s getting hard to avoid. If you’d like to keep me at this, there’s a very easy way to help. I run a crowd-funding page at Patreon. The service allows people to sign up to chip in a set amount of money for each video. Most of my patrons chip in a dollar or so. It’s easy to cap the amount of money given each month as well, in case I go crazy and make ten videos in a month. For the cost of a cup of coffee a month, you can help keep this project going… I’d be very grateful if you considered doing so…
Saudi Arabia is a US colony. It owes its existence to the British Empire, and it owes its continued existence to the United States. This is not widely known. Folks just assume that Saudi Arabia was always there, they got lucky with oil, and now we’re stuck with them. That’s not how it went at all. It’s probably worth documenting this claim in a longer blog post than normal. It’s a bit too complex to wrap into this video.
The Saud family, and its nasty relationship with religious extremism does go back a ways. I document this relationship at length in the essay, which I recommend you buy. They managed to put together a pretty impressive, if briefly lived state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They held Mecca and Medina briefly, from 1802 to 1818. They were booted out of there by an Ottoman Egyptian Army. The Saud family then managed to put together another chunk of land based around Riyadh, but by the 1890s they were refugees, forced to seek shelter in Kuwait. If you’d picked a family ca. 1910 to end up the most powerful (and possibly richest) of the last royal families standing it certainly wouldn’t have been the Sauds.
Which is where the British empire stepped in. In 1915 the British were fighting World War I against the Ottoman Empire, among others. They were looking to support any Arab leader they could against the Ottomans, who had controlled the Middle East since the 1500s. Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? That’s about the British support given to the Hashemite family, that had ruled Mecca for hundreds of years. The Arab Revolt that made Lawrence a celebrity was led by Faisal of the Hashemites. This was all lovely, stuck it to the Ottomans, and turned Faisal into a somewhat internationally respected figure.
This presented the British with a problem when the war ended in 1918. They had Faisal, a well respected, charismatic leader, with established connections to the Arab urban centers, and some modernizing instincts. Faisal had a pan-Arab mindset, and envisioned a unified, powerful and developing Arab state, stretching from his family’s territory in Mecca and Medina as far as Damascus and Baghdad, and maybe beyond. This was more or less what he had been promised during the War, and he went to the Paris Peace conference to press his case.
But the British didn’t want that. They wanted the territory for themselves. They got it, establishing “Mandates” in Palestine and Iraq. The Brits got Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the French got Damascus, establishing what became the ill-fated state of Syria. Arabia, or rather all the unimportant and desert bits of Arabia were left to the Hashemites. But not just the Hashemites. The British continued to support the Sauds, with cash subsidies, and a ton of surplus munitions from the war. It depends who you read, but many sources maintain that the British subsidies were the only thing keeping the dirt poor and enthusiastically anti-modern Saudi army going.
If you were the British who would you rather support as a neighbor? A charismatic descendant of the prophet, experienced in international diplomacy? Or a bunch of desert whackos? The desert whackos looked a lot less threatening. The British continued to support both families, but it’s unlikely that they were all that disturbed when the Sauds came screaming out of the desert and took Mecca and Medina in 1925. This conquest was accompanied by strikingly ISIS like destruction of ‘idolatrous’ Muslim heritage sites and massacres of non-combatants. The British didn’t lift a finger to help the Hashemites reclaim their historic lands. They felt a bit bad though, so they made Faisal King of Iraq. In May 1953 his descendants were massacred, and the monarchy was ended in one of Iraq’s many brutal changes of government. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the last ruling member of the Hashemite dynasty, descended from one of Faisal’s brothers. The Sauds got Mecca and Medina, the de facto leadership of Sunni Islam, and extraordinary oil wealth. The Hashemites got that really cool set from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The British catch a lot of flack for their mishandling of the Israel-Palestine issue, but if you ask me, their creation of Saudi Arabia is a lot more unforgivable.
The “problem of Islam” has nothing to do with religion. At root it’s about development. Specifically uneven development. Up until 1989, the Middle East faced a lot of the same problems that the rest of the world did. The rest of the world got to emerge from the cold war, the Middle East didn’t. Rivalries between Iran, the US, Israel, Syria, Iraq and others persisted while the rest of the world moved on and got rich. But there was a country in the Middle East that has been rich for over half a century. Saudi Arabia used its riches to attempt to crush Islamic diversity world-wide. They failed.
Saudi Arabia is no longer the only rich Muslim country. Its influence is fading. This will accelerate in the new oil price environment. But nobody fully appreciates what has happened. The Saudi megaphone has been the largest for quite some time. They have the eager participation of Islamophobes in the West, who are happy to call Saudi religion the only version of Islam. Saudi Arabia’s project failed. But very few know it even existed. This video attempts to set the record straight.
My roommates went to Coachella this weekend. When they got back I made them talk about Saudi Arabia. They were pretty beat, but it’s still a more useful conversation than you would ever get on Fox News or CNN. The talk is a bit rambling, but it’s super useful. It gave us a chance to enlarge on some of the issues brought up by the videos. It also brings in some of the issues covered by the “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” essay that may not get covered in the videos.
The most important issue that the talk covers is my personal attitude towards Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabians. It’s important to emphasize that as angry as I am about the US-Saudi relationship, I bear no ill will towards Saudi Arabians. The whole country, even its leadership is caught in a trap. It’s not a trap that’s entirely of their own making. Find out more by reading the essay…
9/11 conspiracy theorists are focusing on the wrong thing. The true scandal isn’t what happened in the run-up to 9/11. It’s what Washington, DC did after 9/11 that is truly horrifying.
US Middle East Policy is a sad, sad joke. One of the central points in my understanding of the world is this: Institutions will act in what they perceive their interests to be, not the interests of the people they are supposed to serve. When institutions are crafted with this knowledge in mind, they can serve useful purposes. But once you point them in a direction, they are hard to turn around. The fundamental ridiculousness of post-9/11 foreign policy, laid out in this video, is a great example.
On 9/11 we were attacked by Saudi Arabia. But the US foreign policy establishment had decided long ago that the Saudis were are allies. So we went out and beat up on Saudi Arabia’s enemies. This never made any sense. Worse, it hasn’t worked. The US government’s policy was always going to be a failure on the measure of finding and punishing the perpetrators of the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. That was never the goal. But post-9/11 hasn’t even succeeded in the goal it chose: Protecting and expanding Saudi and US power.
So maybe we should choose some new goals?
If you want an idea of what that might look like, and a fuller recounting of the disaster that post- 9/11 US policy has been, I suggest you check out my new essay: Everybody’s Lying About Islam.
People are good at ignoring the obvious. Saudi Arabia is finished. The 2014 crash in the price of oil has left the ruling family in an impossible position. Since 2014 the country has been burning through around $100 Billion of dollar reserves a year. At that pace, the current regime has got about 4 years left before they can’t meet their obligations. The almost 100 billion in debt (up by a factor of 4 since 2014) that the country is now carrying will accelerate this issue. This problem has been noted of course, but most financial publications have been quick to swallow the Saudi line on the issue.
The problem has been identified, and Saudi Arabia is supposedly taking bold steps to address it. What few are talking about is how inadequate these steps are. This video covers the farcical “Vision 2030” idea that is supposedly going to turn Saudi Arabia into a new Dubai.
What I didn’t get into, because the video was already too long, was the illusion of a Saudi Aramco IPO. Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, is supposedly a multi-trillion dollar company. Selling off the proposed 5-10% of the company would give the Saudi royal family a few more years of runway. It’s not going to work. It may very well go forward, but they are not going to get the money they want. Also, the investment is something that everybody will be excited to look into, but dramatically fewer will want to actually buy.
Aramco is a state-run black box at the moment. Getting money from outside investors would require a high degree of disclosure and re-organization that they are unlikely to be interested in doing. The country is also faced with a couple of Catch-22s. First, driving up the valuation of the company requires driving up the cost of oil. To do this Saudi Arabia has to restrict its supply, which means it would lose market share, and have less funds to deal with its many issues. Second, if they don’t get Aramco up to Western corporate standards, they’ll have to rely on local investors. Those investors have plenty of money, but as the country gets shakier, they will become less interested in investing in Aramco. A great indication of the shakiness of Saudi Arabia would be the country’s needing to rely on local investors to fund the Aramco IPO.
These issues leave me convinced that by 2030 Saudi Arabia will be a completely different country. Unfortunately US policy seems to be that the Saudi money spinner will go on forever. The new administration has been doubling down on the brutal Saudi adventure in Yemen, and seems to want to escalate with Iran. This is crazy.