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.
I’ve evolved kind of an odd format for this Yemen series. History is always written with an eye towards what’s happening right now. In my research for this series I found the only book written after the Saudi intervention in Yemen to be the most useful. The other books were kind of haunted by the idea that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen wasn’t sustainable. Yemen Endures, the best of the bunch, was very sure it wasn’t. History is about drawing lessons, and the lessons we need apply to what’s happening now.
With these videos I think I’m doing a kind of extreme version of that. I started with the current crisis, and now I’m working my way through Yemen’s history in a telescoping format. Part 2 covered 1500-1970 or so, today’s part 3 covers 1970-2001, and (maybe) Tuesday’s should cover 2001-2011. As I go along I try to draw out the lessons for today’s issues that are useful. I find this approach pretty satisfying. How is it for the viewers?
Yemen is having a pretty horrific time. But it’s not as straightforward as some of the Middle East’s other disasters. Yemen’s fall has been expected for quite some time. That’s the most striking thing about every account I’ve read of Yemen over the past few months. Everybody saw this coming. Which is a pretty horrible thing when you think about it. If everybody knew what was coming, why didn’t anybody do anything to stop it?
That’s one of the many questions that we start to answer with this second video in my quickly ballooning Yemen series. I hope you enjoy it. These videos are taking a ton of work, but they’re also very rewarding. My hope is that peeling back the layers of Yemen’s disaster will help us avoid similar disasters in the future. Let me know what you think!
We never hear about Yemen. Endless amounts of ink and pixels have been spent on the conflict in Syria. “Innocents are dying!” is the constant refrain. Well, innocents are dying in Yemen too, and we never hear about it. I’m not saying that information on Yemen is censored in our newspapers. It’s censored by the combatants, but that’s not tremendously different from what goes on in Syria, and is not what I’m getting at.
We do know that Yemen is a disaster, but our government and media doesn’t do anything more than issue the facts. There are no government ultimatums or red lines. There is no daily “above the fold” update. When the UN or some other NGO issues a new report full of outrages, it is dutifully published on page 27 or the online equivalent. No time is invested in Yemen either, in the halls of government or on the opinion pages. That’s an outrage.
Today’s video explains why that is and starts my small effort to raise awareness about Yemen.
“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.
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….
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.
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!