I feel like I’m weirdly a lot more optimistic about American power today than most of the US media is. Today I lay out why I think that may be. The US is reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as some inexplicable horror, another step back towards history’s chaos, and another sign that the American world order is falling to pieces. As more of a cynic, and a student of foreign relations, my sense is that the US world order has been falling apart since at least 2003. What Russia has done in Ukraine, is give us a second chance. By conclusively setting himself up as a more destructive and dangerous actor than the US government, Putin has given the US world order a new lease on life.
What’s vital in this moment is that we seize that opportunity. Europe is now back on our side in ways it hasn’t been for two decades. What we should do now, is try to win over the rest of the world by improving our relations with old enemies that no longer matter. To it’s credit, the Biden administration is already trying to do this with Iran and Venezuela. Unfortunately, they are being blocked by their efforts to do so, and not just by Republicans. I think it’s a failure of understanding. US government and media don’t understand just how bad the situation was, and how valuable a window Russia has given us. Today’s video is my attempt to explain the situation.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Russia’s invasion of its neighbor has changed the world. The horror in Ukraine could drag on for weeks, months, or years to come. Putin could fall tomorrow, or he could also hold on to significant parts of Ukraine, and consolidate power in a more authoritarian Russia. But no matter what happens in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has failed. He hasn’t just failed miserably to defend his Western borders, he has also done something tremendously damaging to Russia, China, and anybody else who was excited about a post-American world. He has given the United States a gift and he has given the United States a weapon that can be used against not just Russia, but China as well.
Russia has made the United States look like the good guys again. Now for most news consumers in the United States, the idea that we were ever anything other than the good guys may be surprising. This keeps most Americans from understanding the true value of the gift that Russia just gave us. From Syria, to Libya, to Ukraine, Afghanistan and even Iraq, US news tells us that, well, mistakes were made, but everybody knows our intentions were good right? As I have tried to convey with my YouTube channel for most of a decade now, no, everybody does not know that. This fundamental misunderstanding in US media and government makes it possible that we will miss a once in a century opportunity, for the second time.
Today I will explain the past 20 years as the rest of the world sees it, and what we should be doing right now, to cement our position as the good guys, and use it against China, before Washington DC comes up with some other nonsense that blows up our reputation again.
The United States has tremendous economic and cultural power. At the dawn of this century, the one-two punch of the world’s surviving the cold war and the US suffering the 9-11 attack added nearly infinite political power as well. Our economic and political system had demonstrated its superiority to Communism after a half century of struggle. The savage attack on New York and Washington DC by some of the Cold War’s dumbest remnants added a Martyr’s gleam to the penumbra of victory that already surrounded the United States. In the fall of 2001, the world was ready to do almost anything the United States asked. We were only limited by our imagination in early 2002, and a new world order of peace and prosperity wasn’t just possible. It was likely. Unfortunately…
“North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of Mass Destruction… Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.
With his Axis of Evil speech in February 2002 George W. Bush demonstrated that neither he, nor the people in his administration had any imagination at all. Rather than lead the world forward, Bush and his people tried to lead the world back into a sad, farcical retread of the cold war. In the pursuit of this goal we absurdly pumped up the insignificant countries we were picking fights with. Singling out Iran was particularly tragic. In the fall of 2001, they had rallied to the US’s cause, helping us win a quick military and political victory in Afghanistan. The United States has not had a single foreign policy victory in the 20 years since Bush’s criminally stupid speech. North Korea became a nuclear power on Bush’s watch, and he turned Iran from a possible friend into a regional power and an implacable enemy.
Bush did manage to take out Iraq, but he did so at such an obscene cost in lives across the Middle East, that he fundamentally discredited US leadership for the 18 years that followed. US media will tell you that all sins were washed away by the election of Barack Obama, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We have a very, very rough, but I think effective measure of what the world really thinks of the US, under all the layers of US government and media bullshit. We have Germany.
In 2002, Germany and France joined with Russia to condemn Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq as an absurd atrocity. They were completely right of course. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was loathed by the world, as well as the majority of the publics of all our allies, and it shattered the US’s relationship with our biggest and richest European ally from March of 2003 until February of 2022.
Obama’s election was welcomed, not just in the United States, as a chance for change. Surely this young charismatic person of color would abandon Bush’s war on Terror, with its extrajudicial detention in Guantanamo, drone assassinations everywhere, and ever expanding set of undeclared wars. Nope. Obama barely provided a rebrand. His main effect was to neuter the Democratic Party’s previously powerful anti-war movement. In 2011, French and British defense industry greed prompted the elites of those countries to join the US in destroying Libya, plummeting all of North Africa into a lost economic decade. I have referred to this as the NATO destruction of Libya in that past, but I was wrong about that. I forgot that Germany, again wisely, stayed the hell out.
Angela Merkel didn’t just refuse German participation in NATO’s invasion of Libya , she even abstained from the UN security council resolution that authorized it. Whether you think she could see the disaster coming, or was just making a political decision based on widespread US unpopularity in Germany, it serves my point. Even under heartthrob Obama, nobody outside of North America thought the US was on the side of the angels anymore.
In recent weeks people have pilloried Merkel and Obama for not acting more strongly when Russia was violating Ukrainian sovereignty in 2014. They may be right to do so. The problem is that the US was doing worse at the same time.
Putin was smarter in 2014. He used special forces skulduggery and Ukrainian forces with legitimate grievances to carve up his target back then. These were, of course, the identical tools that the United States was using to carve up Syria at the same time. Washington DC think tanks certainly don’t see it that way, but most outside the United States who cared to investigate the question could see US imperialism in Syria for what it was. And the US backed separatists started a conflict in Syria that killed hundreds of thousands and almost killed the European Union with its refugee flows. Russia’s imperialism in Ukraine only killed 10,000 or so prior to February 2022.
As Europe and the world began to emerge from the refugee Brexit storm Obama had given them, the United States elected Donald Trump. His administration provided the worst of both worlds, his hirelings and his Congress were brutally anti Russia while Trump himself constantly kissed Putin’s ass. Put simply it was confusing. The US’s arming of Ukraine made Russia reckless, while Trump’s personality and statements made it impossible for anybody to respect or follow the United States in anything. US backing for Saudi and UAE imperialism in Yemen also confused the issue.
Putin’s subversion and annexation of parts of Ukraine in 2014 horrifically expanded the realm of the possible. Both our enemies, and our allies got excited about stealing territory. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded Yemen after a party they didn’t like won a civil war there. The Gulf Monarchies squabbles with each other made their invasion a failure, but their ongoing competitive attempts to de facto annex islands, deserts and port cities in Yemen have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. With the encouragement of the Russian and Saudi examples, Turkey stepped up it’s US supported destruction of Syria with outright occupation of territory, starting in 2016 and expanding from there. Crucially, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are staunch US allies. Some in the US complain about these occupations, but they are carried out with weapons and often with intelligence and other support provided & maintained by the US.
We work hard in the United States to crush voices that point out these parallels, but for everyone outside of our media market, it was easy before February to see Putin’s crimes as just smaller, less destructive versions of things the United States had done, and was continuing to do.
Germany’s opposition to every US foreign intervention since 2003 was one indicator of how far the US had fallen in the world’s estimation. But so was the widespread discrediting of democracy. The whole spreading axis of autocracy idea was always mostly Pentagon marketing, but there is a kernel of truth there. Despite all our financial and media power, between 2003 and 2022, if the US was selling a political concept, the world wasn’t interested anymore. All our preaching about Democracy and Human rights became so toxic, because of what it had produced in the Middle East, that people understandably became more interested in stability than freedom. In Syria specifically, and more broadly, dictatorship began to look more attractive than anything the US was offering. Did bad actors in China and Russia exploit this? Of course. But the successes of Putin and Xi Jumping were just a secondary effect of the abysmal choices the US had made. Over the past 20 years, we have been the greatest threat to the world and to ourselves. We were the bad guys. Until February 24th.
By invading Ukraine, Russia has shown that there are worse things in the world than the United States. I am the first to acknowledge that there is some racism in the fact that the world seems to care a lot more about Ukrainians than it does about Syrians, Iraqis or Yemenis. But its important to recognize that Putin’s poor man’s George W. Bush routine is a lot more destructive than anything my country has done this century. The United States was always too smart to get into a fair fight. We haven’t operated anywhere without air superiority since the 1940s. Ukraine is far outmatched, but what we have there is a true conventional war between near peers, the likes of which the world probably hasn’t seen since the Iran Iraq conflict in the 1980s. This kind of war is hellishly costly. Russia is widely believed to have lost more soldiers in three weeks than the United States lost in all 20 years of the War on Terror. That’s certainly humiliating for Russia, but it also means that the toll in civilians and their opponents is also probably vastly higher as well.
The shorthand I use for deaths in US crested conflicts may be a bit misleading here. I tend to deaths from all causes, US bombs, but also civil wars, starvation, and diseases caused by sanctions as well, over the course of decades. The higher estimates of Iraqi civilians killed directly by the US military in the initial US conquest are around 7-10,000. I assume that many more Ukrainians have already been killed by Russia’s war, or will be shortly, with no real prospect of this invasion phase of extreme slaughter stopping, or even slowing down. In fact, most expect civilian casualties to accelerate in the coming weeks.
Quick note from the editing process. Let me try to make that point a little more clearly. The two periods of the worst war crimes that the United States has committed this century were probably in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, that’s when we killed an estimated 7-10,000 civilians. The second worst would probably be when we retook Mosul, working with the Iraqi army, retook Mosul between 2016 and 2017 from the Islamic State, an entity that we inadvertently helped create. In that process, we have no exact numbers, but estimates seem to indicate that we killed 9 to ten thousand civilians. These are horrific crimes that the United States has committed. That was a seven month battle in Mosul. That was taking an entire country in 2003. I would estimate that if Russia hasn’t already killed more people than we did in those two massive massive war crime events. In Ukraine, if they haven’t killed more civilians already, they certainly will in a month or two from now, and there is no indication that this fighting is going to slow down, or that the rate of civilians being massacred by Russia is going to do anything other than speed up. That’s what I’m talking about. What Russia is doing is legitimately, or if it’s not already is potentially much, much worse than anything the United States has done this century.
Russia has launched a war whose consequences in human suffering are likely to be far worse than anything the United States has done since the 1970s. And that’s before we even start talking about the consequences for the rest of the world.
Russia and Ukraine combined export 30% of the world’s wheat, most of which go through the now highly militarized Black sea. It’s unlikely that these wheat exports will be disrupted by sanctions, but it doesn’t matter. Self-sanctioning, and the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure have already driven prices through the roof. Oil and gas prices are also skyrocketing. Vladimir Putin’s folly is almost guaranteed to push the world into a global recession.
For the first time in almost two decades, the US isn’t the bad guy, it’s Russia. And it feels great! In an instant, Europe has decided to comply with thirty years of US requests to increase defence spending. And most importantly, Germany, that richest and most populous of European countries has decided to start backing our plays to the hilt. 20 years of opting out and playing Russia and the US off of each other are over, and Germany is all in.
However! And this is a big however, winning over Germany, does not mean we have successfully won over the rest of the world. Germany is a country that shares tons of cultural, religious and sociological characteristics with the United States. Hell, more US white people have ancestors from Germany than anywhere else. The fact that a country as similar to us as Germany found US leadership so toxic over the past 20 years is an indicator of just how far we had fallen. But just because Germany and the rest of Europe are now on board with us, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is too.
Coverage of the UN General Assembly’s vote against the invasion focused on how few countries voted with Russia. But it’s also worth focusing on how few voted with the United States and Europe on a fairly benign reassertion of the idea that countries shouldn’t invade other countries. A lot of countries abstained or didn’t show up to vote. Even before the oil and food crises start to hit, it’s clear that the rest of the world doesn’t yet buy that the US are the good guys again.
So, we need to sell them on it. Russia has given us an incredible gift by doing such an evil and destructive thing. The best way to make Russia look even worse, and scare off anybody who may be considering supporting Putin, is to clean up our own act. It would be very easy to do.
Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan now looks like a stroke of genius. Can you imagine how silly we would look, complaining about Russia’s invasion and occupation if we still had a 20 year failed occupation going ourselves. Can you imagine how much danger our troops would have been in, as heavily US supported Ukrainian troops slaughter Russian soldiers. The famous Russia’s giving the Taliban bounties to kill US soldiers story from the 2020 election was a fraud, but in the current context Russia would absolutely be doing exactly that. Getting out of Afghanistan was probably the hardest step. The rest of the things we should do are comparatively easy.
The Biden administration is already taking steps forward with Venezuela, and Iran, in the hopes of getting more oil out to our own refineries and the rest of the world as well. This is great, but we need to do more, reaching out to governments like Cuba, and the Houthis that have always governed 80 percent of the Yemeni people. We have real problems now. It’s time to focus on the big issues, not hold grudges against geopolitical pygmies that do nothing but waste our time and money, and build potential allies for Russia and China.
Israel and Iran’s tit for tat missile attacks in recent weeks reminded us how much of a waste of time and focus the Middle East is for the United States. Far better to rein in our client states, sign the Iran Nuclear Deal, and get our troops the hell out of there. Middle East Play Time is no longer necessary to keep defense budgets up, and every news story out of there makes the US look like the bad guy, not Russia.
China at the moment is terribly confused. It probably knew the Ukraine invasion was going to happen, but like the Obama administration, that approved a three month Saudi invasion of Yemen that’s still failing bloodily seven years later, China had no idea what its client state was dragging it into. China has probably never been more susceptible to world opinion than it is today, and Russia has just taken a massive dump on its reputation that it did not need.
China can be made the bad guy in a really compelling way right now over Ukraine… but not if we are doing stuff that can be portrayed as being just as bad in Yemen and Syria.
In fact, the Yemen, Ukraine parallel, something, I have been emphasizing for years, just got a lot more relevant. If we want a quick end to the war in Ukraine, we need to get China to abandon it’s Russian satellite on this issue. There is no better way for the US to show the world it is serious about this than abandoning our own petro-client state’s evil invasion. We could kill two birds with one stone by forcing Saudi Arabia to leave Yemen. We could clear off one of the greatest stains on our reputation, AND, make China look worse if it refuses to do the same with its Russian client.
I am very confident that Washington DC is filled with people eager to use our new good guy status to coerce smaller countries on every continent. That’s exactly what we did the last two times our reputation soared, in 1989 and in 2001. This time, why don’t we do the opposite? Why don’t we actually try to be the good guys, and see if we get better results? There is no more powerful strategy we could use against China.