The fall of Tunisia’s constitutional order is profoundly depressing to me. But if we’re honest, it happened long before President Kais Saied brought the hammer down on Sunday July 25th. Tunisia’s government has been a non-stop crisis for two years, leading to one of the world’s worst Covid responses, and a murderous third wave that’s happening as we speak. This provides a grim opportunity, because I’m better positioned to talk about Tunisia than I ever have been. I spent a couple months this spring studying the country and the issues facing it fairly closely. The critique I put forward in today’s video is one that I was planning to launch anyway. Tunisia’s constitution was likely to fail from the start.
With this blog post, I’d like to continue to complain about something I was harping on in today’s video. In our new media era coverage of international news is just abysmal. Because it gets clicks, you can find exhaustive coverage of every new sound bite in the 2020 US presidential election. But when political earthquakes like this happen, we’re reliant on a staggeringly small range of voices. As I mentioned in the video, many of the New York Times stories written on Bolivia are actually produced in Brazil. That may be where their regional headquarters are but in previous eras there would have been actual correspondents on the ground, or at least competent local stringers that the NYT could have been able to rely upon. But instead we’ve got a guy who certainly knows more than I do, but will be writing about Brazil next week, and maybe Uruguay the week after next.
I am kind of hard on the unthinking coverage of the New York Times and the Washington Post in this video, but that doesn’t mean I am against these organizations. In fact, I think you should all subscribe to them. As biased and incomplete as the stories they tell sometimes are, without them we’d be lost. If the opponents of these resources get their way, then all we’d have to go on in Bolivia would be the reports of the Organization of American States, the US State Department, and the triumphant tweets of US senators. As bad as things are now, that would be even worse. In the 1980s the US media effectively blocked some terrible US policies in Latin America. It’s pretty clear that the media no longer has the strength or capacity to do that. That’s pretty sad.
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 week’s video lays out how easy it would be to fix Congress. This prompts a question though. If it’s so easy, why hasn’t it happened yet? I think the answer is pretty simple. Everybody hates Congress. It’s a vicious cycle we’re in. Congress has always been corrupt. Over the past half century or so, it hasn’t been very good at getting things done either. The general uselessness of Congress makes people angry. So they take funding away from it, and Congress gets even more useless. Nobody wants to stand up for Congress because it’s an unpopular position. Which makes it a perfect topic for this YouTube Channel.
Nobody has anything nice to say about Turkey anymore. That’s a shame. If there’s a news story it’s about Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the ways he’s taking new powers, purging and repressing. That’s all very important stuff, but I think it’s missing the forest for one particularly tall tree. I lived in Turkey for five years, and I’ve been thinking about the country for a while. There are some basics that the doomsayers are avoiding. This video presents what sort of functions as my Grand Unified Theory of Turkey Optimism. Islam is important, Erdogan is important, and the economy is important. But what is most important is Urbanization.
This theory can actually be applied to the politics of a lot of countries, not least the United States of America. The tension between rural and urban populations is a universal, whether we’re talking about China’s Hukou issues, or the 2016 US election. Thailand is another country that pops to mind. We’re all, as a planet, still going through a pretty insane process of transition. Our parents or great-grandparents were mostly farmers, and now we’re mostly urban dwellers. That’s going to keep having an impact for centuries to come. I hope this video helps you think through these issues a bit more.