Today’s video tries to present the relationships that Saudi Arabia has with Turkey and Indonesia. I don’t really do much of this on this channel, unless we’re talking about one of the world’s great rivalries, like Saudi Arabia vs. Iran. That’s too bad. Almost all of the videos on this channel deal with the way the United States relates to some other country. That’s only natural, as I am a US citizen, and all of us are living in the shadow of the world’s most powerful country to some extent. But I think a lot of valuable detail gets left out if we just focus on the relationships between the US and other countries. And that detail is only getting more important.
Power is flattening. The old imperial model, and the early US world system lent itself to a “hub and spoke” approach. Colonized or just weaker countries tended to have one all important relationship, and then lesser ones with neighbors or other countries with which it had some kind of historical connection. Nowadays more and more places are getting rich, and therefore their relationships are getting a lot more complex. Business and cultural ties can strengthen for a wide range of reasons. Everything’s getting a lot more interesting. I hope to do what today’s video does more often, and cover more relationships between countries outside of the context of the United States.
I’m proud of today’s video, but I wish I had delved into the topic of the Muslim Brotherhood a little more deeply before making it. I have of course looked into the issue in the past. This week I’m reading a lot about 1848, so I ended up interpreting my long settled views on the MB through that lens. Sadly I didn’t do a review of what the “Muslim Brotherhood” is supposed to be in the countries of the Arab world in 2018, until I got to the editing process. I was kind of blown away. The whole Muslim Brotherhood theory really makes no sense at all.
Saudi Arabia really doesn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood. Supposedly. In Saudi Arabia’s view of the world, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood that’s responsible for all the Sunni terrorism over the past couple decades. Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with it. It’s not Saudi Arabia, it’s this vast, international conspiracy that the Saudis are heroically fighting! Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is supposedly one of the main reasons that Saudi Arabia is trying to isolate Qatar democratically. Yet in Saudi Arabia’s failed invasion of Yemen, one of Saudi Arabia’s great allies… is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s amazing how completely that undermines the narrative, but just doesn’t get talked about much. There is no real connection to an over-arching group or philosophy.
That’s because there is no over-arching group or philosophy. The Muslim Brotherhood is very powerful in Egypt. Egypt’s military is now trying very hard to crush it, as it has been doing on and off for at least 70 years now. The Brotherhood’s presence elsewhere is an artifact from the dimly remembered past, when Egypt was the leader of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood is as much a parody of what it once was, as Egypt itself is. The most significant problem for the Saudi/US theory of the all powerful Muslim Brotherhood is the movement’s complete absence from Syria. The Assads apparently did a pretty good job of slaughtering the local chapter decades ago. But if the MB was this powerful force for world-wide terror… wouldn’t it have some kind of “boots on the ground” in Syria’s almost decade long coming out party for all of radical Islam’s worst pathologies? Not a thing. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t really exist as an international force. Wish I had remembered to get that in today’s video. But I still think it’s pretty good.
In recent years the focus of the channel has changed. I dive in deep on what’s going on in certain countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria or Yemen. This new, in depth approach has been great for the channel, and I think it also makes for much better videos. When something comes up with one of those countries, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want to say, and I usually have some good, under-covered context to add to the conversation. Writing those scripts rarely takes more than 5 or 6 hours. My research on those countries is constantly on-going, and I don’t have to think too hard to put together something I’m proud of.
This one was different. I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, I only promise to do a better job than any cable news channel. This is super easy with the countries I’ve been covering for years. Venezuela is new for me. For years I’ve wanted to do more Latin America coverage, but I haven’t had the time to do the in depth reading that is necessary. It’s impossible to avoid having an opinion on Venezuela of course, but they are not really “MY” opinions. It’s what I’ve been force fed by other news sources. That made writing this one super tough. I had to try to cut through the layers of bullshit and say something original. The story of what’s really behind Venezuela’s drop in oil production was one I’ve wanted to tell since May, but the framing was super difficult. I just don’t have the necessary context, which I hope I made clear… Today’s video went through multiple drafts over multiple weeks. I hope you think it was worth the wait!
Let me preface this by saying again that I’m not any kind of Israel expert, but I figured I should talk a bit more about the claim at the end of today’s video, that Israel has helped reduce its neighbors to smoking ruins. The question of Israel’s role in the run-up to the Iraq war is controversial, but the consensus seems to be that they were very much for Bush’s invasion, and did what they could to promote it. The current Israeli government’s almost gleeful support for the destruction of Syria is less controversial. Israel is officially neutral, but in 2017 they conceded that they had carried out around 100 airstrikes against Syrian and Hezbollah targets over the course of the war, and they have acted as a stumbling block to the peace process.
I think this is all a terrible mistake. This policy of aiding in the destruction of Iraq and Syria might have made sense during the Cold War. It would have been vicious then, but it would at least have had some justification. During that era, when they were faced with the opposition of a vastly better armed Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the opposition of the Soviet Union, taking these sorts of actions would have been rational. Israel’s current leadership still acts as if they face this sort of existential threat. They don’t. And the world knows it. The desperately promoted threat from Iran is virtually nonexistent. The policies against Iraq and Syria that Israel supported did give Iran more power on the ground in these countries, but Israel remains free to bomb them at will in Syria. Most of Iran’s weapons systems date back to the Shah. Iran has made some limited progress with missile technology, but the use of that technology would quickly result in a complete roll-back of Iranian power in the region, and no doubt the destruction of multiple Iranian and Syrian cities by the Israeli and US air forces.
The Soviet Union is gone. Egypt and Jordan are now Israeli allies, and amazingly Saudi Arabia, if still officially hostile, is now largely seen as an Israeli ally as well. The international Palestinian terrorist threat of yore has been almost completely neutralized. It has been co-opted by the Palestinian Authority, and it has been fairly comprehensively rooted out of its old homes in Lebanon and Jordan. With the fences and walls around Gaza and the West Bank, the threat of a third Intifadah is largely meaningless. Palestinians would die in their thousands, in return for a few miles of burned Israeli farms. Netanyahu and company seem to think they are now secure enough to treat the Palestinians any way they want. This is a terrible mistake.
Despite all Israel’s protestations, the world, outside of Washington, DC, can now clearly see that it is more secure than it has ever been. All 21st century wars are media wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more so than others. Netanyahu’s behavior makes it look, even to Israel’s most natural allies, like Israel is THE destabilizing element in the region. Much of Israel’s support in the world, and in the US in particular, is based on the perception that the country is a plucky underdog. Killing Palestinians by the thousand, with the support of former enemies like Egypt, while increasing security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, does not fit that image. As today’s video says, Israel’s current leadership serves the interest of US defense contractors, not the interests of Israel.
So What, am I a Democrat now?!?! Hell no. But, as I mention in today’s video, I definitely want them to win big in the mid-term elections this November. This may be surprising to some of you. Though I certainly changed my tune in 2016 and became a very reluctant Clinton supporter, long-term viewers know that I’m a pretty hardcore third party guy. In fact I’ve never voted for a Democrat or Republican in a national election. (In 2016 I was registered in Washington, DC, a super Democratic jurisdiction, so my vote didn’t matter). In fact, when I started doing this channel full time in 2014, I intended to use it to agitate for third parties in 2016.
Trump changed my calculus, obviously. I was convinced that Trump posed a unique threat to US politics, and nothing about his presidency has changed that conviction. I’m no Democrat, and it’s hard to imagine my ever becoming one, but Trump makes for strange bedfellows.
And my support for the Democrats this time around is actually quite consistent with my old school Libertarian views. Divided government, one where different parties control different branches, is always better from a Libertarian perspective. It means that less gets done. I’d be perfectly happy for the next two years of Trump’s presidency to be completely gridlocked. It’d be better than what we’ve got now.
Economies are funny things. I just noticed that I forgot to tie today’s video into one of the central messages of this “Markets Are Dumb” series. That’s the importance of Confidence to markets. I sometimes think that’s all there is to them. In our last installment on the Turkish economy I talked about how the fundamentals of the Turkish economy had been disastrous for half a decade. Everybody knew this. All the experts agreed. Yet the Turkish economy kept trucking along, and sometimes putting up very impressive growth numbers. How did it happen? Confidence.
The Turkish people weren’t exposed to the basic facts of their economy, and their misplaced faith, or confidence, kept the wheels spinning. The growth this led to prompted international investors to keep pouring money it. It seems that this perpetual motion machine may finally have stopped. As today’s video makes clear, Trump can’t be held responsible for any of the disastrous choices that Turkish policy makers have made over the past decade. But he is the guy who finally punctured that last bubble of confidence. And that’s actually pretty important.
So how do we bring about change in 2018? It may seem like I’m doing advertising for MSNBC with today’s video, but I assure you I’m not. It’s about trying to take a chunk of media that serves a purpose and put it in front of more people. This may seem petty and small, but I really don’t think it is. In fact, I think it’s this kind of “media hacking” that can actually bring about change in the modern day.
It’s common for people to be hopeless about the way things are going. “Whatever, we’re all screwed!” is often the prevailing attitude. We’re all at the mercy of insane government institutions and the media that gave us our reality TV president. One of the central messages of this channel is that that approach is nuts. In fact, we’re in a better place than we have ever been. In the United States at least, we’ve got a 230 year old system that provides all the tools we need to change things for the better. The weird social media / news / politics ecosystem that is evolving now is tremendously disconcerting, but it also provides new opportunities. We wouldn’t have ended up with Trump without the internet. But would we have ended up with the speedy adoption of marijuana legalization, gay marriage, or the (painfully slow) fall of mass incarceration without the internet? It’s not all disaster.
If we do solve the problem of the US forever war, it’s going to be by using these new social media tools in combination with the older tools of the US political system. I have no idea what that’s going to look like. But I think the experiment that is today’s video is worth trying. Last March, when the senate was debating a resolution that could have ended the war on Yemen, I urged people to call their congresspeople. This is just another approach to the same goal.
Keen eyed viewers may have noticed something a bit odd about this video… Have I gone full tin-hat and joined the “Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons team?” No, no I have not. I feel the same way about this issue that I do about religion. I find those who claim any kind of certainty, one way or the other, deeply silly.
In April the United States bombed Syria, supposedly in response to a chemical attack that Assad carried out in the Damascus suburb of Douma. In my video on the topic I covered the two interpretations of the event, and why I didn’t find either particularly persuasive. The bombing struck me as being about US domestic politics more than anything else. My video demolished the idea that there was any real security or humanitarian rationale to the Trump Administration’s bombing, but it also pooh-poohed the claims of the “Assad was framed!” set. Today’s video is a bit more sympathetic to the idea that the rebels cooked up April’s chemical attack to get the US to bomb Assad.
People shouldn’t be forced to be on one side or the other. Neither the Assad regime, nor the US intelligence community are trustworthy actors. I tend to give the US intelligence community more of the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps I’m biased. Our opinion of a given controversy shouldn’t be black and white. It’s entirely possible that what happened didn’t fit either narrative. It wasn’t necessarily a CIA stitch-up, the US could have been manipulated, or it could have let itself be manipulated by elements on the ground. We should also change our opinion based on new information. And with respect to April’s chemical attack, the US intelligence community has burned up a lot of my good will.
In April the US government justified its bombing with assertions that the nerve agent sarin was used in the attack on Douma. This is important, because it’s well established that many actors in the Syrian war have the capacity to deliver more widely available and more easily deliverable chlorine gas. The presence of sarin was important in the US’s story that this Douma attack was different, and more worthy of punitive action. The US made this claim, and got the United Nations to back them up. Well, earlier this month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released its report, and they didn’t find any Sarin. So we know that a significant portion of the story Trump and Mattis was selling was bullshit.
But once again, this is a spectrum. It doesn’t mean the CIA planned this. But it seems much more likely, to me anyway, that April’s Douma attack was carried out by the rebels themselves to try to win a propaganda victory against Assad. This could very well not be the case. Who knows, maybe Assad hopped in a helicopter and dropped those Chorine canisters himself. But if that’s the story the US government wants to tell, it shouldn’t let itself get caught out in such obvious lies. It forces me further down the path to tin-foil hat territory.
Man, Timing can be awkward sometimes. My programming choices tend to be pretty free from influence of outside events. If something important happens, I’ll react to it, usually with a live video, but other than the 2016 US election and Brexit vote, I rarely tune my content towards things that are happening. I decided to finally address the Mueller investigation with today’s video, simply because my thinking on it matured to the point that a video became possible. I’m talking about Mueller investigation this week, because I finally thought I had something worth saying about it…
What I didn’t expect when I wrote this a couple weeks back, was it coinciding so directly with the Putin-Trump summit. And I certainly didn’t expect Trump to put in the performance he put in yesterday. I think the reaction to Trump’s mealy-mouthed and sycophantic approach to Putin is a bit over-blown, but only a bit. It was pretty pitiful to watch, and if you’re more invested in myths of US virtue and power than I am, it must have been especially painful. The reactions, both from my friends, and from social media have been pretty intense. The folks who have always been convinced that Trump is a Russian tool are now adding to their ranks. It’s kind of an odd environment to be releasing a video skeptical of the Mueller investigation into, but hey, that’s what I’m doing! Can’t wait to see how it goes…
Today’s video gets into some very interesting territory that I hope to cover more in future (years?). So much of today’s politics in the United States is rooted in this weird idea of “whiteness” and who is a “good American” and who isn’t. These dumb, dumb conversations are of course as old as our republic. Let’s leave aside the fact that the “realest Americans”, the indigenous, and African Americans (few of whose ancestors were forced here after the early 1800s), are somehow never invited to the party.
What today’s video gets into in a small way, is the role of folks from our last (much larger) wave of immigrants around the beginning of the 20th century. It sometimes seems like it’s the newest members of US “whiteness” that are the most vicious in its defense. I’m thinking specifically of the very Irish Sean Hannity, and the very Italian Jeanine Pirro of Fox News. In a small way, the largely illusory “clash” between Trump and the Establishment is a clash between a fresher 20th century New York, Italo-Irish version of whiteness, and an older version. It’s the Nouveau Riche vs. the folks who never let them into their yacht clubs.
This too is a tale as old as time. I’m not sure if it’s seen as not polite, or just plain not relevant to bring up, but I think it’s worth focusing on a bit. You can’t really understand the silliness of conversations around Latinos and other immigrants without understanding how foreign the Irish, and later the Italians, Slavs and Jews were once seen. This idea of “Real America” or “Whiteness” is becoming more and more of a focus of the Trump administration’s public profile. Today’s pardon of the Hammond family, a goal of domestic white terrorists, is one example. As I’ve said before, Trump’s presidency is almost certainly the dying gasp of an older version of “Real American”. Presidential politics has served this role before, though in a more positive sense. John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 symbolized the acceptance of Catholics into the US mainstream. It didn’t prompt a Trumpian reaction the way that Obama’s presidency did. But that doesn’t mean that Trump’s version of White supremacy is any less dead than the WASP ascendancy is. Like I said, we’ve seen this story before. A new US identity is already forming. That’s why the “whites” are so pissed. Obama got into the yacht clubs before they did.
Is there a contradiction in the foregoing paragraph? Absolutely. And I think it’s worth exploring further. Someday.