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.
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.
Since I started laying into Saudi Arabia with gusto about six months ago, folks have been bringing any number of stories to my attention. It seems like every month or so there is a new positive story about Saudi Arabia running in every major Western news outlet. It’s like clockwork. Actually it’s just like clockwork.
Some of these stories represent real advances. Some do not. But we’re not seeing them because of their intrinsic merit, we are seeing them because Saudi Arabia gives tens of millions of dollars to the best public relations people in the business. Last week saw one of the most coordinated and sophisticated pushes yet. This video mentions an interview with the Guardian, but there were customized approaches to a number of outlets. The New York Times gave their launch of a new economic zone above the fold treatment.
So I tend to be pretty skeptical when somebody comes to me with news of Saudi Arabia’s changes for the better. There was one element in the onslaught this week that surprised me however. MBS’s claim that Saudi Arabia is now a moderately Islamic country was legitimately shocking to me. Shocking enough that I made this video.
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.
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.