It’s amazing how little most policy makers know about history. If it’s not about Neville Chamberlain and appeasement, they probably haven’t heard of it. This is a real problem. As the stewards of a power that might actually have a few real competitors a couple decades from now, they really need to start learning.
This week I’ve been in Bavaria, a formerly independent region of Germany. This prompted a number of ruminations on Germany, France, and their relative power throughout history. All that inspired this video, which reveals the central fact Washington, DC is missing: There is nothing worse for the power on top than war.
Donald Trump has proved that he is only capable of destruction. That’s not always a bad thing. On his first day he did away with the TPP, a move I supported, and a couple months back he did took the US out of the Paris Climate Change accords, which I did not support. But it’s the prospect of his taking us out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, as he almost did last week, that is the most frightening.
The conventional fox news narrative of the Nuclear Deal does not acknowledge the diplomacy that was necessary to force Iran to the table. To truly break the deal in a way that has any impact on Iran we need all the same international partners on board. If we don’t have that, we risk making the United States look foolish and weak. Foolish is nothing new. Weak is, and it would be a real problem. Today’s video explains the stakes.
Saudi Arabia is a US colony. It owes its existence to the British Empire, and it owes its continued existence to the United States. This is not widely known. Folks just assume that Saudi Arabia was always there, they got lucky with oil, and now we’re stuck with them. That’s not how it went at all. It’s probably worth documenting this claim in a longer blog post than normal. It’s a bit too complex to wrap into this video.
The Saud family, and its nasty relationship with religious extremism does go back a ways. I document this relationship at length in the essay, which I recommend you buy. They managed to put together a pretty impressive, if briefly lived state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They held Mecca and Medina briefly, from 1802 to 1818. They were booted out of there by an Ottoman Egyptian Army. The Saud family then managed to put together another chunk of land based around Riyadh, but by the 1890s they were refugees, forced to seek shelter in Kuwait. If you’d picked a family ca. 1910 to end up the most powerful (and possibly richest) of the last royal families standing it certainly wouldn’t have been the Sauds.
Which is where the British empire stepped in. In 1915 the British were fighting World War I against the Ottoman Empire, among others. They were looking to support any Arab leader they could against the Ottomans, who had controlled the Middle East since the 1500s. Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? That’s about the British support given to the Hashemite family, that had ruled Mecca for hundreds of years. The Arab Revolt that made Lawrence a celebrity was led by Faisal of the Hashemites. This was all lovely, stuck it to the Ottomans, and turned Faisal into a somewhat internationally respected figure.
This presented the British with a problem when the war ended in 1918. They had Faisal, a well respected, charismatic leader, with established connections to the Arab urban centers, and some modernizing instincts. Faisal had a pan-Arab mindset, and envisioned a unified, powerful and developing Arab state, stretching from his family’s territory in Mecca and Medina as far as Damascus and Baghdad, and maybe beyond. This was more or less what he had been promised during the War, and he went to the Paris Peace conference to press his case.
But the British didn’t want that. They wanted the territory for themselves. They got it, establishing “Mandates” in Palestine and Iraq. The Brits got Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the French got Damascus, establishing what became the ill-fated state of Syria. Arabia, or rather all the unimportant and desert bits of Arabia were left to the Hashemites. But not just the Hashemites. The British continued to support the Sauds, with cash subsidies, and a ton of surplus munitions from the war. It depends who you read, but many sources maintain that the British subsidies were the only thing keeping the dirt poor and enthusiastically anti-modern Saudi army going.
If you were the British who would you rather support as a neighbor? A charismatic descendant of the prophet, experienced in international diplomacy? Or a bunch of desert whackos? The desert whackos looked a lot less threatening. The British continued to support both families, but it’s unlikely that they were all that disturbed when the Sauds came screaming out of the desert and took Mecca and Medina in 1925. This conquest was accompanied by strikingly ISIS like destruction of ‘idolatrous’ Muslim heritage sites and massacres of non-combatants. The British didn’t lift a finger to help the Hashemites reclaim their historic lands. They felt a bit bad though, so they made Faisal King of Iraq. In May 1953 his descendants were massacred, and the monarchy was ended in one of Iraq’s many brutal changes of government. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the last ruling member of the Hashemite dynasty, descended from one of Faisal’s brothers. The Sauds got Mecca and Medina, the de facto leadership of Sunni Islam, and extraordinary oil wealth. The Hashemites got that really cool set from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The British catch a lot of flack for their mishandling of the Israel-Palestine issue, but if you ask me, their creation of Saudi Arabia is a lot more unforgivable.
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…