This one almost ended up as another channel trailer. I initially produced a video making fun of the Thucydides Trap when it was first publicized in the Atlantic over five years ago. I thought it was a profoundly silly concept from the start. Unfortunately, it’s become a phenomenon. Just go to Google News and type in “Thucydides Trap” and you’ll find that it is mentioned at least weekly in one article on US-China relations or another. This misuse of the concept is quite sad, because Thucydides actually does have a very useful story to tell policy-makers in the United States. In today’s video, I lay out that story, and use it as the foundation for my pitch for the third of three options for this channel’s next new project. You now have the all the information you need to vote!
My guess is that today’s video will get lots of comments along the lines of “You’re only realizing this now?” and “Obviously!”. For many observers of the Middle East over the past two decades it is transparently obvious that the United States has been the problem. Nobody else has been overthrowing governments and sowing chaos with the abandon that the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have. At least a million lives have been lost, and an entire region of the world has lost out on two decades of economic development because the US wanted to cover up for the fact that their client state, Saudi Arabia, had done 9-11. So yeah, we’re the bad guys. Obviously. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get worse.
Our bad guy status is not so obvious to the US public at large. And it’s certainly not so obvious to the US media. That’s why I think it’s worthwhile to mark the trajectory here. The US isn’t just a damaging actor, it’s been getting progressively worse. Many argue that Obama was better than Bush, and his attempt at an Iran Nuclear Deal really was a serious attempt at peace, but everything else he did was a continuation of the horrors of the Bush presidency. More than that, it was an intensification of them. Obama destroyed Libya and Syria without even pretending to rebuild them. His drone program led to fewer US casualties, but its scope and brutality put us into even more morally fraught territory that its initially smaller bodycount hid from us. And Trump, with his gleeful embrace of war crimes is obviously another big step down the path to heck. Things really are getting worse. That’s worth marking, which is one of the things I attempt to do with today’s video…
I think this video is a fairly clever way to launch this epic series on the British Empire’s lessons for the world of today. One of the many things I think about when I’m doing any sort of persuasive writing is “What are the arguments against this?” It may not be apparent this week, but what today’s video does, is get out ahead of what I anticipate will be some of the most prevalent arguments against this video. The vids this week are probably more likely to piss off fans of the British Empire, But the vids on the two following Tuesdays should start annoying the “Why U No Like America” types. As with many videos, the argument here had its genesis in a facebook argument years ago. I’m glad to finally get it out there.
And no, Rambo, the symbol of rampaging 1980s hyper-patriotism, does not appear in this video. I’m hoping to capitalize on some of the magic of this video, which kicked off my Everybody’s Lying About Islam series. “Saudi Arabia Is Finished” did not feature Eddard Stark of Game of Thrones Fame, despite his being featured on the thumbnail. My guess is that pop culture reference might have had something to do with the almost 800K views that video has racked up. I am hoping Rambo can help with this one…
So What, am I a Democrat now?!?! Hell no. But, as I mention in today’s video, I definitely want them to win big in the mid-term elections this November. This may be surprising to some of you. Though I certainly changed my tune in 2016 and became a very reluctant Clinton supporter, long-term viewers know that I’m a pretty hardcore third party guy. In fact I’ve never voted for a Democrat or Republican in a national election. (In 2016 I was registered in Washington, DC, a super Democratic jurisdiction, so my vote didn’t matter). In fact, when I started doing this channel full time in 2014, I intended to use it to agitate for third parties in 2016.
Trump changed my calculus, obviously. I was convinced that Trump posed a unique threat to US politics, and nothing about his presidency has changed that conviction. I’m no Democrat, and it’s hard to imagine my ever becoming one, but Trump makes for strange bedfellows.
And my support for the Democrats this time around is actually quite consistent with my old school Libertarian views. Divided government, one where different parties control different branches, is always better from a Libertarian perspective. It means that less gets done. I’d be perfectly happy for the next two years of Trump’s presidency to be completely gridlocked. It’d be better than what we’ve got now.
Today’s video gets into some very interesting territory that I hope to cover more in future (years?). So much of today’s politics in the United States is rooted in this weird idea of “whiteness” and who is a “good American” and who isn’t. These dumb, dumb conversations are of course as old as our republic. Let’s leave aside the fact that the “realest Americans”, the indigenous, and African Americans (few of whose ancestors were forced here after the early 1800s), are somehow never invited to the party.
What today’s video gets into in a small way, is the role of folks from our last (much larger) wave of immigrants around the beginning of the 20th century. It sometimes seems like it’s the newest members of US “whiteness” that are the most vicious in its defense. I’m thinking specifically of the very Irish Sean Hannity, and the very Italian Jeanine Pirro of Fox News. In a small way, the largely illusory “clash” between Trump and the Establishment is a clash between a fresher 20th century New York, Italo-Irish version of whiteness, and an older version. It’s the Nouveau Riche vs. the folks who never let them into their yacht clubs.
This too is a tale as old as time. I’m not sure if it’s seen as not polite, or just plain not relevant to bring up, but I think it’s worth focusing on a bit. You can’t really understand the silliness of conversations around Latinos and other immigrants without understanding how foreign the Irish, and later the Italians, Slavs and Jews were once seen. This idea of “Real America” or “Whiteness” is becoming more and more of a focus of the Trump administration’s public profile. Today’s pardon of the Hammond family, a goal of domestic white terrorists, is one example. As I’ve said before, Trump’s presidency is almost certainly the dying gasp of an older version of “Real American”. Presidential politics has served this role before, though in a more positive sense. John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 symbolized the acceptance of Catholics into the US mainstream. It didn’t prompt a Trumpian reaction the way that Obama’s presidency did. But that doesn’t mean that Trump’s version of White supremacy is any less dead than the WASP ascendancy is. Like I said, we’ve seen this story before. A new US identity is already forming. That’s why the “whites” are so pissed. Obama got into the yacht clubs before they did.
Is there a contradiction in the foregoing paragraph? Absolutely. And I think it’s worth exploring further. Someday.
I feel like markets and economics have been an underpinning of what I’ve been talking about for quite some time now. It’s been a troubling thing for me. There’s always a lot of certainty when these issues come up in political discussions, but usually almost nothing backing up that certainty. The conditions we’re looking at are always changing, and the theories that people gravitate to are some of the least proven imaginable. Economics has pretensions to being a science. But the variables are immense, and there’s really only one result.
We have one world economy, and its performance at any given time is the only thing that we have to point to, to see whether our theories are working. There is no control group. Most of the figures we rely on to measure what’s going on are little better than rough estimates, and the political consensus rarely lasts a decade. I have high hopes for the profession of economics. People are doing amazing work in the field, and the move onto the internet that our species is currently undergoing provides the possibility of real measurement (and Orwellian nightmares). I’m confident that the future is bright, but I think we all need a lot more humility in talking about the economy. Which is why I made today’s video, and why I’ll be adding to the series in the coming weeks…
Watching today’s video, I don’t think I really hammered home the point I was trying to make with the section on Wolf Warrior 2. So let me do that here. The Chinese public is being primed to embrace the idea of “humanitarian” intervention in Africa. Modern China doesn’t have much of a history of international adventuring (other than scoring points on its borders with India and Vietnam), but “Chinese Hollywood” is doing its best to build support for it. The Chinese public apparently has a tremendous appetite for this kind of film. If you look at this list of the biggest Chinese blockbusters you can get a sense of just how dominant Wolf Warrior 2 has been. But following up in second place we have this year’s Operation Red Sea, which is apparently a vastly exaggerated recounting of the Chinese Navy’s extraction of Chinese nationals from the war zone in Yemen.
I actually sat through both of the Wolf Warrior movies, and I have a very long twitter thread to show for it. I’d recommend you read that twitter thread. The first Wolf Warrior film presented a very standard, and very old message. Essentially: “Leave Us Alone!”. The first film provided a bit of weird cognitive dissonance for this American viewer. It was profoundly odd to see all the tropes of large scale US action film making translated into a Chinese context. It was weird fun, but there was little in the message presented to object to.
As you’ll see if you read the twitter thread, Wolf Warrior 2 was not fun. It was downright scary. The messages presented were heavily in favor of intervention, and the whole movie implied that China had a responsibility to help the poor defenseless Africans its with massive military power. This is of course just a mirror image of the messages that Hollywood has been pumping into the US public for decades. It’s profoundly disturbing to see China’s nationalist messaging moving in the same direction. But that’s what is happening. Wolf Warrior 3 is apparently going to be about fighting terrorists. It’s really, really sad to see China adopting the worst parts of US militarist ideology. It’s hard to see how it won’t eventually lead to conflict, as I point out in today’s video.
Oh, and if you want to check out my whole “World War 3” series thus far, which takes a serious look at how this conflict, which I view as being decades off, might take place you can check it out here…
I’m no Donald Trump fan (to put it mildly) but occasionally, he’s absolutely right. He wants to get out of Syria. He said so back at the end of March. I have a nasty suspicion that his statement may be the reason we ended up bombing that poor country a few weeks ago. As I’ve documented fairly rigorously over the past couple years, almost everybody in “respectable” politics in the United States is angling for a wider war in Syria.
That’s why it’s so hard to find the basic information I’ve laid out in today’s video. The conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq are often talked about in broad terms. It’s conceded that the conflicts were mistakes, but we get bogged down in the details, and questions of the individual mis-steps and controversies. The bigger picture gets obscured. I’d argue that’s kind of the goal. Because if you back up a bit, and view the trajectory of these conflicts, you quickly realize that they are very similar. And, horrifyingly, this is exactly the trajectory we’ve embarked upon in Syria. Today’s video draws back the curtain.
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.
9/11 conspiracy theorists are focusing on the wrong thing. The true scandal isn’t what happened in the run-up to 9/11. It’s what Washington, DC did after 9/11 that is truly horrifying.
US Middle East Policy is a sad, sad joke. One of the central points in my understanding of the world is this: Institutions will act in what they perceive their interests to be, not the interests of the people they are supposed to serve. When institutions are crafted with this knowledge in mind, they can serve useful purposes. But once you point them in a direction, they are hard to turn around. The fundamental ridiculousness of post-9/11 foreign policy, laid out in this video, is a great example.
On 9/11 we were attacked by Saudi Arabia. But the US foreign policy establishment had decided long ago that the Saudis were are allies. So we went out and beat up on Saudi Arabia’s enemies. This never made any sense. Worse, it hasn’t worked. The US government’s policy was always going to be a failure on the measure of finding and punishing the perpetrators of the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. That was never the goal. But post-9/11 hasn’t even succeeded in the goal it chose: Protecting and expanding Saudi and US power.
So maybe we should choose some new goals?
If you want an idea of what that might look like, and a fuller recounting of the disaster that post- 9/11 US policy has been, I suggest you check out my new essay: Everybody’s Lying About Islam.