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.
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.
Sigh. Sunday’s election in Turkey was pretty depressing. Erdogan won re-election as president of Turkey, and his coalition retained a majority in the Turkish parliament. This puts him in a dramatically more powerful position. The recently revised constitution makes the President the center of Turkey’s political system. And with this election, the office of the Prime Minister is done away with, and Erdogan is now in more full control of the country than he has ever been.
You can find an infinite number of articles talking about how bad this development is, and I largely agree with them. But I remain optimistic about Turkey, just in the longer term. Here are two things to make you feel a bit better…
First, this is exactly what we expected when the elections were announced a couple months back. I have said repeatedly in my Turkey videos that I expected Erdogan to win the next couple elections. This has happened. But over the past two months, something really exciting happened. The CHP, the party that has failed to adequately oppose Erdogan for almost two decades now, finally put up a candidate that people actually liked. Muharrem İnce is likable, has a compelling story, and actually seems to be a decent leader, which is at least two things, if not three things that the CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu does not have. In the weeks leading up to the election, İnce held rallies attended by literally millions of people. This, combined with the founding of Meral Akşener’s Iyi party last year made people surprisingly hopeful.
Those hopes were dashed. The AKP, in an alliance with the (suspiciously successful) hyper-nationalist MHP party, has managed to hold onto a majority in parliament, and Erdogan himself was re-elected. This sucks. But it’s exactly what we expected out of this election before we got our hopes up. The opposition parties remain very successful in Turkey in spite of some truly extraordinary obstacles. We shouldn’t get too depressed about something we expected all along.
The Second reason not to get too depressed about this election is the topic of today’s video. Turkey’s economy is a mess. It’s been on the edge for years now, and 2018 has a good chance of being the year when it finally tips over. When that happens, whether it’s this year or next year, Erdogan will own it completely. Last week, as people were getting more excited about the possibility of an upset, all I could think about was 2015. In June of that year, Erdogan’s party, the AK party, lost its parliamentary majority for the first time. I was quite literally dancing in the streets that June. But because the opposition parties were a disaster, they couldn’t get it together to form the coalition government necessary to get rid of Erdogan. He was able to create a new crisis with the Kurds, and call a new election. He won that 2nd election in November 2015. That felt a lot worse than Sunday did. For me anyway. If the opposition had won this time, I could have easily seen that happening again. It wouldn’t have been the Kurds this time. The economy could have crashed, and as President, Erdogan could have blamed the opposition and called a new election. We’re not going to have to do 2015 again, and for that at least I’m grateful. Today’s video lays out just how difficult a time Erdogan is about to have with the Turkish economy.
This video does a good job of laying out how ridiculous the “Democracy is Dying!!!” story is. But what it doesn’t do is lay out why the story gets so much play. The sad fact is that it’s useful to powerful people in the United States. Once again, it all comes back to the US military industrial complex. The wise men of the Pentagon have realized that “Terrorism” is losing its power as a motivating factor. Despite the best efforts of Trump & Co. it’s obvious that general white loser angst has had a much higher body count in the US over the past decade than “Radical Islamic Terrorism”. So we need something else to be scared of to justify our absurd military budgets. That’s why this narrative gets so much play.
The idea is that if “Democracy is Dying”, the world really is “more dangerous than it ever has been” as the Pentagon keeps telling us. I may do a video on this in the coming weeks… I’d be interested to know how much relevance this story has beyond the national security nerd twitter bubbles I frequent. In those circles this “Democracy is Dying” story has become the conventional wisdom. Is that the sense you get where you are at as well? Let me know in the comments.
I wanted to address another aspect of the comparison between Pakistan and Turkey that the cursed article I talk about in today’s video mentions briefly. The article does concede that Pakistan’s dictator led Islamification under Zia ul-Haq was a completely different example than the attempts at Islamification currently being carried out by Turkey’s elected president Erdogan. As I point out in the video, Pakistan remains desperately poor today and this was even more the case in the 1980’s. Zia was using Islam as tool for nation-building. It remains a key part of Pakistan’s sense of itself as a nation today.
As I laid out in my other twovideos on Islam in Turkey, Erdogan does not have the blank slate to work with that Pakistan’s Zia did. Pakistan of course, unlike Saudi Arabia, has an endlessly rich and varied history. But very few among a population that mostly couldn’t read, and was living on the brink of starvation, were able to benefit from that history and culture. Turkey has a very distinct sense of nationalism that is quite separate from Islam, and that is internalized across the population. No matter how powerful Erdogan becomes, he will not be able to eradicate those underpinnings.
This one is part sequel, part explanation. A couple weeks back I published a video entitled “Washington, DC Has Won The War In Syria”. One of my central points was the thought that while the US government had met many of its messed up priorities, the US people and the world and general had in fact lost. It became clear from the comments that this did not get across.
So I put together the video I’m uploading with this post. I think it answers criticisms, but it also does more with that. It reckons with the larger consequences of the Syrian war for geopolitics, and the prospects of world peace and prosperity in general. It starts specific and gets very very general. Syria is a depressing issue, and my weariness with its unrelenting horror may come across in this video. But I try to end on a hopeful note.
The conflict in Afrin may have been my most requested topic ever. I’m glad that folks have forced me to at Syria again. I was dreading it a bit, though, because the subject is super depressing. The war is both horrific and infantile, where some players are desperately hanging on, and others are just idly running around destroying things and destroying people.
The United States would be the prime example of the latter. We’re barely aware of what we’re doing, and what has happened. We are constantly told that Syria somehow means that US leadership is waning, or that other actors are “winning” the war. Believing this requires complete ignorance of the real power dynamics here. The US is much more powerful than any other belligerent, and by any objective analysis my government is the only entity that has “won” anything here. If Syria was a board game, Washington, DC would be the winner. But Syria isn’t a board game. It’s a country that has been destroyed. It may take decades, but there will be consequences. This video lays out the whole depressing state of affairs in Syria today, and yes, it also deals with Afrin.
The fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Turks is one of the most significant events in Eurasian history. Some use the date it happened, 1453, as the break point between “Medieval” times and the “Early Modern” era. The threat of the Ottoman Empire was an important thing too. It motivated a lot of the state consolidation and military advancement that gave us modern Western Civilization. The threat of “the Turk” is long passed, but we don’t challenge the basic assumptions that that struggle has left us with. We don’t need the dream of a fallen Constantinople for propaganda purposes anymore. We should acknowledge what actually happened. That’s what this week’s video aims to do.
You all may have noticed that I consciously avoid the term “Byzantine Empire” here. The Byzantines did too. In fact the term wasn’t even invented until centuries after they had gone. They knew themselves as Romans, so that’s how I try to refer to them as well. This confusion has its origin in a bit of archaic racism. The Enlightenment thinkers that drew European History together didn’t like the Greeks much. For them Rome was based in Rome. It was the great civilization of Cicero and Augustus, it spoke Latin and it ended in 476.
The Western bits of the Empire did in fact fall in 476. But the Eastern Half had a full 1,000 years of history ahead of it. The Western European historians of the 1700s found this kind of thing distasteful. Altogether too Eastern. The Eastern Roman Emperors, with their constant murdering of each other, their pretensions to imperial divinity, and tasteless bling weren’t really their sort of Romans. So they invented a whole new name for them, the Byzantines, based on the original Greek name of Constantinople. I’m a big fan of Rome, and I have some of the same prejudices, but I don’t feel the need to distinguish the way the folks in the 1700s did. So I tend to use the term “Eastern Roman Empire” rather than “Byzantine Empire”.
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.
This one answers a very specific question. Turkey has been acting in ways that the US and the EU disapprove of for at least four years now. Elements of the problem go much farther back, but up until the Gezi park protests in 2013, and the accompanying crackdown, the West was pretty much on board. That hasn’t been the case for quite a while now. But it’s only recently, in the past few months that real cracks between Turkey and Western countries have become visible. Why did it take so long?