Hey there. I’ve never done this before, but with today’s video I’ve re-purposed a snippet of a longer conversation I had last week with Jon Coumes of the Safe For Democracy podcast. I’m doing this because I went on a (somewhat profane) rant that answers a question I get from a lot of people. What is Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and how should we look at it historically speaking? It’s way too early to tell of course, but I have a pretty good idea. The channel usually tries to deal with current issues, and though we’re still dealing with all of his wars, Obama is not a current issue. So I won’t be doing a more produced video on the topic.
But I think this video answers the question pretty handily…
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.
What few people recognize is how far the US Congress has fallen, and how quickly. US pop culture, almost from the beginning, has featured a high degree of skepticism about Congress. They’ve always been known as a bunch of corrupt, pompous windbags. That’s a healthy attitude to take towards one’s government. But I think this constant attitude of contempt has served to hide Congress’s fall.
With the one two punch of Newt Gingrich’s “reforms” in the 1990’s (discussed here) and the expansion of the government after 9/11, Congress has lost the plot almost entirely. It’s only by looking at the power and principle that Congress could stand on just a few short decades ago, that we can get the full picture. That’s what this week’s video comparing Congress’s abdication of responsibility for Yemen to their treatment of Nicaragua in the 1980’s is intended to do.
With this video we bring our investigation into Yemen to a close. Looking at the country in depth, it’s become clear that the stories we tell about Yemen don’t have much relation to reality. Al Qaeda nightmares, and the much heralded hegemony of Iran are ideas that I find annoying at the best of times, but they’re especially pernicious when it comes to Yemen. These issues are tangential to the conflict in Yemen, which is really about independence first and foremost. I hope you find this series useful.
I’m quite pleased with how this has gone. It’s nice to produce a handful of videos with a defined beginning, middle and end. Those who make their way through this Yemen series will know more about the country and the conflict than anybody in Washington, DC. I hope to be able to make more things like this in future. Which is why I close today’s video with another Patreon Pitch…
It’s almost like they’re the same word. In US circles it used to be rare to see a headline mentioning Yemen that didn’t also include Al Qaeda. In media circles I guess this is understandable. US audiences want to read about that which threatens us, and ISIS and Al Qaeda are past masters at getting themselves on our radar. Terrorists generally play the media like a fiddle. What’s less forgivable is the focus of the US government. Instead of taking steps to stabilize Yemen, a country whose collapse was endlessly foretold, we ran around bombing stuff, and further empowering Ali Abdullah Saleh, the kleptocrat who was riding Yemen to destruction. The result, of course, is what we have now, chaos, and a vastly empowered Al Qaeda. Good job team!
This video, the second to last in the Yemen series for now, starts the job of bringing in a different focus for our discussion of Yemen.