One thing we don’t cover about history, is how bad everything was, and just how recently. The era covered in today’s video (ca. 1710-1711) came AFTER the United Kingdom’s great revolution in governance. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 supposedly set in motion the chain of events that gave us modern parliamentary democracy. This country subjected to the mad whims of a love triangle was one of the freest and best run in the world at the time. After Queen Anne’s death, the British crown was given to a bunch of German protestants, who initially didn’t even speak English, helping constitutional development along. But as recently as 105 years ago, most powerful countries in the world were subjected to personal rule of one degree or another.
Royalty discredited itself by leading us into the disaster that was World War One, and what was true 105 years ago was not true 95 years ago. Kings quickly slipped away, but we really seem to miss them, in defiance of all history and logic. The current discontent with our representative institutions in Europe and the United States leads me to believe that this warping of history is hurting us. We don’t realize just how much worse things were, and just how recently.
I wish I could make this channel about Yemen all the time. But I can’t. It would just get too depressing. It’s important to hit this topic as often as I can though. This doesn’t just come from my opposition to Saudi Arabia’s government, and the way they destabilize the region. Yemen is truly in the midst of a catastrophe. One of my regrets from the early stages of my Yemen series is the way that I use the UN’s blanket “12,000 people killed” language. The UN stopped counting the dead in Yemen years ago. A recent report puts the figures at over 55,000 dead.
And those are just the figures for the people who were killed directly by fighting. Large scale starvation is now reckoned to have killed 85,000 children in Yemen as well. The bodycount is mounting and the violence is getting worse. For nothing. For less than nothing. The Iran excuse the Trump administration keeps reaching for is a fantasy. It’s important for folks to know about this, because it’s not a difficult problem. The US could stop the war almost immediately, and it would lose nothing by doing so. Information is the key to the end of the tragedy in Yemen. That’s why I’ll keep making vids like today’s video, and why I’m quite proud of my series on the topic.
As I said in today’s video, invading countries is a really stupid thing to do in the 21st century. It’s something I think about a lot, and it’s not focused on enough. It’s one of the best things about modern living. We tell ourselves that the United States doesn’t take territory like old empires because we’re such nice folks. This isn’t really backed up by the historical record. The US spent 50 years failing to subject the Philippines to imperial control as one example. If Iraq had worked out, the Bush administration famously wanted to build a broader empire in the middle east in quick succession. Nationalism quite rightly has a bad reputation, but this is one of its nicer aspects. Folks really care about who rules them today. Independence is something that is valued. Literate, nationalist masses, plus readily available explosives makes the old school kind of empire impossible. So even the most powerful countries find that conquest is too expensive.
It’s interesting to me that this principle isn’t more widely understood. It’s clear from almost every conflict the US has been involved in since World War II, yet we keep jumping into new countries and expecting different results. I suspect that the difficulty of conquest does not make it into most discussion of national security, because it would make it too clear how useless a lot of our military spending is. The Military Industrial Complex needs to pretend that conquest is still a thing that happens.
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!
I don’t necessarily have too much trouble with hypocrisy. Any adult realizes that we’re all hypocrites to some degree. But we should know what we’re doing. And the level of hypocrisy illustrated in today’s video is pretty extraordinary. Yemen and Ukraine are two of the world’s hot spots. Essentially the same thing is happening in both countries. A more powerful neighbor is trying to invade and change them. If we care about international law, we should be more willing to make these comparisons more often.
Also, watching today’s video, I realized that I’m being deeply hypocritical in the video. I was so excited to make this comparison that I left my own country out of the analysis. The United States invades countries more frequently than anybody else does. The vid should definitely have mentioned that. But I think the point still stands. One day the US might be able to be constrained by international law as well. If we’re going to get there, we have to be willing to try to look at all conflicts with a little more objectivity. Which is hard for hypocrites like us…
Hey there. I’ve never done this before, but with today’s video I’ve re-purposed a snippet of a longer conversation I had last week with Jon Coumes of the Safe For Democracy podcast. I’m doing this because I went on a (somewhat profane) rant that answers a question I get from a lot of people. What is Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and how should we look at it historically speaking? It’s way too early to tell of course, but I have a pretty good idea. The channel usually tries to deal with current issues, and though we’re still dealing with all of his wars, Obama is not a current issue. So I won’t be doing a more produced video on the topic.
But I think this video answers the question pretty handily…
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.
This video may not strike you as very serious. But seriousness is the whole point. We use Iran to justify a lot of bad behavior. Just a week or so back, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that we’re going to indefinitely hold territory in Syria because we don’t like the fact that Iran has influence in a country it has had influence in for decades. We use the “seriousness” of the Iranian threat to ourselves and Israel to justify stuff. This doesn’t mean we’re actually serious about the Iranian threat.
Because if we were serious about countering Iran, we’d be using every possible opening. We’d have the ability to both deal with them diplomatically, and oppose them militarily in proxy wars, just like the Cold Warriors of Yore. But we don’t. Because nothing about US foreign policy is serious. Other than its consequences for the world. This video is a thought experiment, asking how we’d tread Iran’s president Rouhani if we were truly serious about countering threats from Iran.
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.