I think I may need to do a series about “Bab el Mandeb-ia”. This crucial strait between Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti has enormous potential. It’s the choke point of one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes. But unlike Panama, or Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the countries surrounding the “gate of tears” seem to have received a curse rather than a blessing. There is so much packed into this region. Tiny countries like Djibouti and behemoths like Ethiopia, Christians, Muslims and Jews, the world’s richest countries and some of the poorest, long-standing US interests, and brand new Chinese bases, this strait has everything.
If the Bab el Mandeb is mentioned in the context of US geopolitics it’s usually looked at as a threat. Some insurgent group or US rival could capture the strait and cause great damage. This possibility exists, but it’s far more interesting to look at the potential. Places like Panama, the mouth of the Baltic sea, and even, to a lesser extent, the straits of Malacca, exist in a much more homogenous cultural context than the countries surrounding the Bab el Mandeb. There is a culture unifying “Bab el Mandeb-ia” but it’s been torn apart by centuries of abusive empires, ideological strife, and general impoverishment. If some of the trends I talk about in today’s video come to fruition, we could see one of the world’s most impressive places return to prominence. That would be a fantastic thing to watch.
So how do we bring about change in 2018? It may seem like I’m doing advertising for MSNBC with today’s video, but I assure you I’m not. It’s about trying to take a chunk of media that serves a purpose and put it in front of more people. This may seem petty and small, but I really don’t think it is. In fact, I think it’s this kind of “media hacking” that can actually bring about change in the modern day.
It’s common for people to be hopeless about the way things are going. “Whatever, we’re all screwed!” is often the prevailing attitude. We’re all at the mercy of insane government institutions and the media that gave us our reality TV president. One of the central messages of this channel is that that approach is nuts. In fact, we’re in a better place than we have ever been. In the United States at least, we’ve got a 230 year old system that provides all the tools we need to change things for the better. The weird social media / news / politics ecosystem that is evolving now is tremendously disconcerting, but it also provides new opportunities. We wouldn’t have ended up with Trump without the internet. But would we have ended up with the speedy adoption of marijuana legalization, gay marriage, or the (painfully slow) fall of mass incarceration without the internet? It’s not all disaster.
If we do solve the problem of the US forever war, it’s going to be by using these new social media tools in combination with the older tools of the US political system. I have no idea what that’s going to look like. But I think the experiment that is today’s video is worth trying. Last March, when the senate was debating a resolution that could have ended the war on Yemen, I urged people to call their congresspeople. This is just another approach to the same goal.
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.
What few people recognize is how far the US Congress has fallen, and how quickly. US pop culture, almost from the beginning, has featured a high degree of skepticism about Congress. They’ve always been known as a bunch of corrupt, pompous windbags. That’s a healthy attitude to take towards one’s government. But I think this constant attitude of contempt has served to hide Congress’s fall.
With the one two punch of Newt Gingrich’s “reforms” in the 1990’s (discussed here) and the expansion of the government after 9/11, Congress has lost the plot almost entirely. It’s only by looking at the power and principle that Congress could stand on just a few short decades ago, that we can get the full picture. That’s what this week’s video comparing Congress’s abdication of responsibility for Yemen to their treatment of Nicaragua in the 1980’s is intended to do.