One of the many irritating things about US foreign policy is its complete lack of imagination. We just keep running the same old scripts over and over. World War II, probably the US’s best war, and really the only one that can be called “good” in the 20th century, still provides the mental models for most foreign policy practitioners. This comes about in very conscious ways, such as the closing in on a century long insistence that everybody the US doesn’t like is Hitler, but I think it comes about in unconscious ways too.
In today’s video, I talk about the way that US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s foreign policy directly echoes FDR’s. They both wanted war, though for very different reasons. John Bolton is using similar tools, and as the past week illustrates he’s getting perilously close to bringing about the same results. But unlike FDR, he has no noble purpose. This is some scary stuff. But it’s also pitiful. We’ve advanced so much as a world over the past 70 years. It’s profoundly disappointing that the most powerful people in it are playing out scripts from another era.
With today’s video I tie together the past month or so of production, and explain why it is that I’m so interested in North Africa. Arab democracy, human rights, human progress, all of that is lovely. But today I focus on a much more simple, dollars and cents issue: Every month the Atlantic economy is mired in war and destruction in North Africa, is a month where the Pacific Economy surpasses it. The disaster in Libya is contributing to economic stagnation in Europe and the Eastern United States. There are very self interested reasons to promote peace.
I really enjoy the way that this one connects the North Africa region together, and then connects it to the implications for the world as a whole. I don’t think enough media does that. Let me know what you think!
I have always found Algeria fascinating. It’s weirdly distinct from the rest of the Arab world. This has always been true, but it’s been especially so since the Arab Spring in 2011, an event that Algeria sat out, almost uniquely.
Most countries in the Arab world are either small or profoundly beat up. They have all lost their independence to one extent or each other, victims of Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary efforts since the Arab Spring. Even Egypt, a country of 80 million that used to lead the Arab world, is reduced to taking hand outs from Saudi Arabia and the United States. Not Algeria.
Over the past two months, Algeria has been experiencing its own protest movement, and its strong man has been dethroned. People are expecting things to take a similar path to earlier Arab Spring debacles. That’s possible, but in this video I argue things may turn out differently. Because Algeria is stronger than you think it is.
Some videos come pretty easy, and today’s video is one of them. I really like it when new ways of looking at stuff pop into my head. The more I think about it though, there are other aspects to this I should have included. The shift in the oil market here is pretty extraordinary. It’s actually the birth of a sort of “Super OPEC”. It’s also an OPEC that’s a lot more dangerous for its members. With a US president in charge, especially a US president listening to Texas oilmen, military operations become a potent tool of market making.
The world, and the US, used to have a minimal investment in the stability of petro-states. In the long term, these places should be happier without US supported perma-leaders, but the short term looks increasingly grim. As oil demand peaks, the ballooning US petroleum industry will need to be protected. The US can do this by knocking off competitors one by one. This could be an underappreciated aspect of Libya’s permanent oil crisis since 2011. Petro-states on each side of the conflict have no incentive to get their proxies on the same page and producing more. Venezuela is being knocked out. So is Iran. Destabilizing Iraq would be very easy. Saudi Arabia is super shaky. A broader war in the Middle East would be horrible, but it would be pretty great for the new head of OPEC… The US president.
I don’t like covering breaking news topics. I’m happy to produce a video on a deep seated issue that gets sparked by something in the news, but I don’t like making predictions or doing video takes about an on-going story (that’s what twitter’s for!). Mid-stream analysis, the bread and butter of the cable news networks, is largely bullshit. Unfortunately, for today’s video, Khalifa Haftar of Libya ambushed me. On March 26th, I promised to do a video on Libya, a topic I had already been researching for a week or two. On April 4th, Khalifa Haftar invaded Western Libya, throwing everything up in the air.
Half of this video was drafted before April 4th. As the news has rolled in, my estimate of Haftar, already pretty negative, continued to plummet. I have tried to make this video consistent and informative in its presentation, but I’m not sure I pulled it off. A video’s title is very much a part of the experience. Usually it just advertises and reflects the content, but I think with today’s video, more buffeted by events than I like, the title may present the conclusion. I shot this video last Thursday, and have continued to research and follow developments as they have come. Haftar is not the savior he is sometimes presented to be. I hope today’s video gets that across.
This video would not have been possible without the International Crisis Group’s Libya coverage. On country after country I have found their work invaluable. They tend to be my starter source for one-shot videos like this where I won’t be reading multiple books.
After today’s video had been shot, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that Haftar has Saudi Arabia’s full support in his destruction of Libya’s chances for a settlement.
I used this headline on Haftar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the video. Keep in mind that the National is a United Arab Emirates publication, so this article may be more useful for what the UAE wants you to think about Libya, than what is actually going on.
I also used this headline from Reuters, and the article provides a nice discussion of Egypt’s shady bombing campaigns in Libya. Reuters is a US publication, so of course it’s going to downplay the fact that Washington, DC is, at root, the responsible party in this nightmare.
I really like today’s video, but I think I stuck my foot in my mouth a bit at one point. I just sort of declared that Tunisia is not a “white country”. I already know I’ll be getting a ton of comments on that. There is no settled definition of “White”. Because of some historical weirdness, in the US Arabs have generally been described as white, long before Italians or Slavs were considered to be in that category. That hasn’t kept US foreign policy from being heavily focused on bombing Arabs for the past two decades.
I try to avoid using desperately inexact terminology like “white” and “Latino”. But what I was trying to get at with today’s video was the fact that certain countries are inside the charmed circle of countries that are seen as deserving of serious help and foreign aid, and some are not. Tunisia, whatever you may think of the country’s relation to “whiteness”, is not in that charmed circle. It should be.
Foreign Aid is a ridiculously complex topic. I really enjoyed diving into it in today’s video. I’m afraid I probably oversimplified things, but I’m excited to learn more about this topic for future videos. The first thing I noticed about foreign aid, is that contrary to the way we talk about it in US politics, very, very little money goes into this. The exception, from the US perspective, is aid that we give to countries who turn around and use most of the money to buy US weapons. Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, our three largest recipients, are all examples of this. Countries we have destroyed, like Iraq and Afghanistan also get a lot of money, for obvious reasons. As this video illustrates, foreign aid is mostly used for short term political uses, not to pursue larger humanitarian goals.
There certainly are really great things that foreign aid has done. Helping to stamp out AIDS and other diseases in Africa is one great thing we do. But a lot of that is private charity, and all of those efforts combined are chicken feed compared to the military related aid that the US shovels down the throats of multiple countries. The EU structural funds, one of the topics of today’s video, are an example of enlightened self interest. The rich European countries know that the best way to ensure a peaceful continent, and avoid having to have much military spending, is to fire hose money into the poorer countries in the continent. I wish the US did more of this. If the cost of a single aircraft carrier was spent on aid to Tunisia, we could really transform the region, and the world, for the better. It’s a shame we don’t do that.
In today’s video I made brief reference to Ilhan Omar and her supposed antisemitism. The most interesting thing about this is that most of the people pushing that story have no idea what she’s actually been accused of. The tweet from 2012, which she has apologized for, mentioned in the video, wouldn’t strike most of the world as antisemitic, but it definitely is according to US standards that I agree with. The controversies over the past few months aren’t antisemitic by any fair definition. She has simply called attention to the fact that US politicians are paid a great deal of money by organizations like AIPAC to privilege Israeli interests over US interests.
A year ago I probably would have been more skeptical of Omar, but the sad fact is that the US congress has proved their allegiance to Israel, over and over. The Omar controversy itself makes this clear, but there are much more concrete actions to point to. I don’t know much about the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanction” or “BDS” campaign against Israel. What I do know is that multiple state legislatures have imposed flagrantly unconstitutional laws that penalize US citizens that refuse to sign anti-BDS pledges. Regardless of the worth or evil of BDS as a program, that’s a straightforward limitation of the first amendment rights of US citizens in a foreign country’s favor. Before this year, I was content to chalk the anti-BDS excesses up to Evangelical Christians in red states who support Israel because they want it to die in the end times that they believe an Israeli state will bring about. The US courts have already ruled versions of these law unconstitutional, and I thought that that slow progress would deal with the issue. Unfortunately not. A bi-partisan group of legislators has mounted an anti-BDS crusade, and is trying to pass national law that allows States to discriminate on the basis of speech and association. That’s outrageous. That’s a clear example of US legislators being bought to put allegiance to Israel over the rights of US citizens. You can read more about this horror here.
Very few of the people who attack Omar have reckoned with this insanity. What’s more, they make assumptions about who she is, and what she believes. Many supposedly serious journalists attempted to pull the “Oh yeah, well why doesn’t she attack Saudi Arabia!?!?!” card. This is ridiculous because she is one of the most consistent voices in Congress against the US-Saudi destruction of Yemen. She is also a supporter of LGBT rights, something else that is ignored in the absurd attacks on her. Our government and media is trying to turn one of the most consistent and heroic opponents of US foreign policy into a racist caricature. It’s pretty awful.
Today’s video sort of unintentionally ended up being the second video in a series dealing with the ramifications of Donald Trump’s destruction of the Iran Nuclear Deal last year. The more I think about it, the better an “Iran Sanctions” series sounds. It’s interesting how much that one terrible decision will end up driving world politics for the next couple years, if not the next couple decades. Almost every day we see things happening that can in part be traced back to it, including Germany’s reluctance to act against Huawei the way the US wants, reported today.
Today’s video focuses on INSTEX, the new European exchange that is the first stab at building a post-dollar trading and banking system. It may seem like a boring topic, but if you understand it, whole volumes of current and future geopolitical maneuvering will be revealed to you. Today’s video does what very few do, and attempts to describe the history of the secondary sanctions imposed by the US in an engaging way. Supposedly journalism is a first draft of history. I’m kind of excited by the fact that nobody else is attempting that draft this way. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that a history focusing through the lens of the Iran Sanctions will provide a clearer picture of the 2020s than anything else.
At the end of today’s video I allude to a very basic principle that shouldn’t need explanation, but kind of does. Put simply: Conflict is bad. It’s not always bad, of course. Competition can be tremendously helpful. It can inspire us, and help us achieve new and better things as a species. My hope is that China and the US will be goading each other on for centuries, out to Mars and beyond. But this healthy competitive process can be corrupted.
There are a number of relationships, that the US government carefully maintains, that have fallen into permanent disrepair. Healthy competition has devolved into useless dick waving contests, and pointless geopolitical chess games that kill people. The US-Iran relationship is the classic example, North Korea is another. The greatest tragedy of this decade is the fact that another relationship, between the US and Russia, has fallen into this pattern as well. Relationships can have virtuous or vicious cycles going on, and relations with all these countries are quite vicious.
I tend to blame the US for this, but it does take two to tango, and there are hardline elements in all our manufactured enemies that help to keep the vicious cycles going. And it really is a collaborative effort. Iran’s theocratic regime can’t exist without the US defense industry funded war-mongering think tanks and politicians, and vice versa. We have gotten to a deeply sad point where the only people who have trusted expertise on these issues are perpetuators of the vicious cycle with Iran. Figuring out how to unscrew those relationships is one of the missions of this channel. But it’s far better to avoid starting the disaster in the first place. It’d be really good if we could avoid getting into an Iran style vicious cycle with China. Today’s video on the Uyghurs ends with that plea.