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.
With today’s video I return to the topic of Europe for the first time in a while. The EU is something I take rather seriously. Those who remember how much I flipped out about Brexit know how seriously. This is surprising to many. What self respecting US conservative can be for the survival of the European Union? One who really doesn’t want to see US soldiers fighting in Europe again. There’s no question that the current EU, run from Brussels is an unaccountable, bureaucratic, overly socialist mess. But it’s a lot better than what came before it.
The EU wasn’t formally established until 1993, but it has its origins in the European Coal and Steel community, going back to 1951. I may not agree with the specific goals pursued, but the platform for unity and peace that the EU and its predecessor provided is undeniable. This has had positive security effects as well. People like to talk about NATO, but NATO is happy to welcome shaky dictatorships. It’s the EU that makes applicants jump through hoops and prove their democratic credentials. I laid all this out in a video a few years back…
History can be used as a weapon. There are a lot of people in my YouTube comments, and in the US at large, who have some weird ideas about Islam. The things they know aren’t necessarily wrong, but the conclusions they draw are. This is a problem that comes up again and again in contemporary political discussion. The more context you have, the more you realize that individual facts don’t tell you as much as you think they do. This video, and the next couple I will be producing, aim to provide the context necessary to better understand the darker aspects of world history, and Islamic history in particular.
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
War Sucks. This is something we’ve lost touch with in the United States. It’s a central truth that’s become further and further from us since the middle of the 20th century. Not that our World War II experience was all that bruising either, compared to almost anybody else in Europe and Asia. Since Vietnam our military has been all-volunteer, and in the 21st century our death-dealing has become more remote, thanks to drones and smarter weapons. Our insulation from all of the consequences of war has made us more willing to use it as a tool of policy or economic stimulus.
Not for Lebanon. They don’t have that luxury. For fifteen years, it was their tiny country that was torn apart by the political fantasies of foreign countries. This video lays out how that horror has allowed them to save us from a broader war, both over the past six years and in the past month in particular.
It occurs to me that I haven’t exactly been clear about what I want to be done about Saudi Arabia. I absolutely do not want to employ the conventional arsenal of regime change. I don’t even think our “historic alliance” should be abandoned. We just need to spend less time going in with them on stupid ideas like the Syrian and Yemeni “civil wars”. Because without us, they can’t to much to make their stupid ideas a reality. It’s now abundantly clear to everybody outside of the arms industry or Washington, DC that Saudi Arabia is not a useful ally. So let’s stop treating them as such. When they suggest a foreign adventure or a proxy war, lets treat them with exactly the same level of interest we’d have for a similar project from Bulgaria or Tanzania: Not Much.
This video answers a question I’ve gotten a few times in the comments. How can I be so pro-Iran yet so anti-Saudi Arabia? It’s simple really. I don’t want Iran to become the new Saudi Arabia, I just want to call an end to the decades of useless antagonism. Iran has not done us anywhere near as much harm as Saudi Arabia has. So we should treat Iran the same way we treat a more “distantly allied” Saudi Arabia. That would be quite a step up. It’s quite literally the least we can do.
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…
Words are important. Last week’s video on Gibraltar inspired a lot of confusion in the comments. People didn’t seem to understand why I found the statement from the UK’s Michael Howard so offensive. So this video explains in detail. Using violent words in a time of international uncertainty can lead to violence. History shows us this.
The video was already too long, so I left out examples of how this happens. In the pre-industrial era you could see this sort of thing all the time. Lands were ruled by Kings and Nobles, with a delicate sense of honor, who would sometimes start wars over verbal insults. The Spanish Armada, the most famous example of tension between Spain and Great Britain is one example. The Spanish tried to invade Britain for a number of reasons, among them religious words, but some of them were personal. Phillip II of Spain was angry that the English Queen Elizabeth had rejected his son’s hand in marriage.
You can see the importance of the words of leaders in the run up to World War I. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 tells the tale. For decades European leaders used belligerent nationalist talk about their enemies to legitimate their rule. They found that this got out of control. Their newly moneyed and literate publics took these words to heart, and ran ahead of their rulers in their hatred of the other. World War I was started by a perfect storm of idiocy, but a lot of it started with words. When the few leaders with sense could see what was happening, they found that they were constrained by the nationalist beast they had unleashed. That beast ended up eradicating the power, and sometimes the lives of most of Europe’s royal families. It’s a great book, and an important read as we fall back into the nationalist maelstrom. I’d suggest giving it a look…