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.
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 have loved the Empire State building since I was a child. But have you ever thought about that name? “Empire State”? That’s how New Yorkers saw their state in the early 20th century. New York led the country that was going to lead the world. Parsing the exact definition of “Empire” intended in the name is a much longer topic than a blog post can cover. But that vision, of New York as a leader, went straight to the top. Al Smith, the president of the company that built the building was a former governor of New York.
This video documents how that vision has faded, and how far from national leadership the people and politicians of New York have fallen. I think I’ll have a lot more to say on this topic in future, but I wanted to briefly lay out the facts this week.
Budgets are boring right? Not really. They are certainly complex, and passing them is complicated, as Washington, DC’s seemingly perpetual shut-down dance shows. But the question of paying for government is the most important one imaginable. Time and again in history we see great empires brought down by the simple question of “How do we pay for this?”
In the 1500s the Spanish Empire encircled the world, and controlled something like half of Europe, if not more. Their American territories brought a constant stream of precious metals. They were brought down mostly by the fact that they didn’t understand inflation, and defaulted on their debt repeatedly. In the 1920s the British Empire reached it’s largest extent. The “Sun Never Set” on the British Empire. 40 years later it was gone. Because they couldn’t pay for it. The holders of British debt in the United States got to dictate British foreign policy in a few crucial instances.
This video may not strike you as very serious. But seriousness is the whole point. We use Iran to justify a lot of bad behavior. Just a week or so back, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that we’re going to indefinitely hold territory in Syria because we don’t like the fact that Iran has influence in a country it has had influence in for decades. We use the “seriousness” of the Iranian threat to ourselves and Israel to justify stuff. This doesn’t mean we’re actually serious about the Iranian threat.
Because if we were serious about countering Iran, we’d be using every possible opening. We’d have the ability to both deal with them diplomatically, and oppose them militarily in proxy wars, just like the Cold Warriors of Yore. But we don’t. Because nothing about US foreign policy is serious. Other than its consequences for the world. This video is a thought experiment, asking how we’d tread Iran’s president Rouhani if we were truly serious about countering threats from Iran.
The most important news is often the stuff we never hear about. This is especially true in the era of Donald Trump’s twitter feed. With this video, I attempt to uncover one of the more important aspects of Trump’s presidency, the career of Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice. As Attorney General, Sessions is attempting to roll back a solid decade of progress in the arena of criminal justice, from civil forfeiture to marijuana legalization.
It’s frustrating to watch Sessions efforts be ignored. When Trump goes after him he even comes close to “resistance hero” status, or at least garners some sympathy. Jeff Sessions does not deserve our sympathy.
Back when I started doing this channel full time, I put out a series called “Notes From The Golden Age“. Today’s video, on the defeat of OPEC, is a long delayed addition to the series. In the six minutes of the video itself, I just laid out the facts as I understand them: The fact that OPEC did its level best to raise the price of oil, and they failed. If you want to hear more about why that is, and hear some discussion of the revolution in petroleum affairs we’ve experienced over the past five years, you could do worse than this video here.
Put briefly, oil doesn’t cost what it used to. The origin of this development is probably OPEC itself. That cartel drastically reduced the oil on the market on a couple occasions in the 1970s, driving the price through the roof. Much has, quite rightly, been made of the Shale revolution in the United States. A range of technological advances has made oil extraction easier, cheaper, and viable in places that it wasn’t before. This revolution has made US production competitive with Saudi Arabia again, and caused the plummet in prices that started in mid 2014. But the Shale revolution is only the most dramatic cause.
The plummet in oil prices is the result of a range of reactions to OPEC’s obscene market power. An under-heralded one is energy efficiency. We have finally reached a point where economic growth is decoupling from growth in petrochemical use. Some of this is renewables, but more of it is the very, very unsexy business of making cars and air conditioning units run more efficiently. Another reaction to OPEC was the broadening of the search for petroleum. Coupled with Technological advances, a staggering range of countries now produce significant amounts of oil and gas. OPEC has been beaten. They largely did it to themselves.
A lot of Saudi Arabia coverage focuses on the loose cannon effect the country has been having on Middle East politics for the past year. Little attention has been paid to the promises that have been made to the country, and the way those promises have not been honored. I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of 2017 from the perspective of Saudi Arabia’s rulers for once. I think it illuminates something many have been missing.
This video started out as a central idea I wanted to deliver about the Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Then it evolved into more of a Saudi Arabia year in review thing. This video is different from the recent ones in a number of ways. It tries to cover a lot, quickly. Not sure whether it’s worthwhile or not. Let me know @robbolaw
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.
Honestly, even I’m not so sure how I made it from John Kelly’s views of the US Civil War to Diocletian. But I did. It was nice to take a break from Saudi Arabia with a nice palate cleansing, and profoundly odd video. Comparing US history to Roman history is a profoundly silly thing to do. The systems are just too different. But sometimes the echos are so obvious I can’t help myself. I hope you enjoy this video as much as I enjoyed making it.