Merry Christmas Everybody! I’m heading out of town in a couple hours, but I’m super psyched to be able to fill one of the year’s biggest gaps by putting out a Christmas eve video on Tunisia! I intend to do a better job of keeping on top of Tunisian and North African politics in the new year. In September and October they held a series of elections that I am very late in covering. Tunisia is probably the most important country in the Middle East/North Africa region. There’s a distinct chance that what they’re doing now will be remembered long after the decades of nastiness further East have been forgotten. One can hope anyway…
The story I’m telling in today’s video is a bit reductive. It must seem crazy, or even a little racist to try to boil all of history down to the actions and power of two Atlantic empires, the British and the American. I am aware that this vision of history is easy to argue against. But as weird as it is, I think it’s definitely saner than the standard view. The 19th and the second half of the 20th centuries are often described as if they were stable systems, governed by agreement, or at least peaceful competition between great powers. The longer I look at these issues, the more convinced I become that that’s not really what’s going on. The stability in both systems was underpinned by hegemonic power. British in the 19th, American in the 20th. The implications of this are rather grim. Looking at history this way doesn’t flatter the British or the Americans, it heaps guilt on them. That’s why British and US propagandists are so obsessed with the idea of competition.
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.
Today’s video, in addition to almost being late, and a lot more difficult to put together than most, tries something new. Rather than talk about what is, or what was, I go in depth on what could happen if we continue on our current path. Essentially today’s video is science fiction. I’d like to do more of this. There isn’t enough imagination in foreign policy discussion. There should be more thinking about where we are going. This can be pretty negative, like today’s forecast of how a war between the US and Iran would go. But it can also be positive.
There’s an assumption that politics and geopolitics should be serious, boring stuff. This is a problem, because it fundamentally misunderstands what we’re dealing with here. Everything in government and politics is based on fantasy. Everybody’s trying to figure out what comes next, and also imagine it. Not reckoning with this fact has led to people taking the past 15 years of US foreign policy seriously, which is a terrible mistake. It’s had very serious consequences, but it’s basically one big practical joke that everybody is expected to take seriously for some reason.
I read a lot. It’s roughly 75% history, and 25% science fiction. Some might see that 25% as recreational, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. History is the study of the past, Science Fiction is the study of the future. By looking at both, I think I get better at understanding the present. Which is a long way of saying I might be doing more Sci-Fi themed vids like today’s in the recent future.
US immigration history is hilarious. And also more than a bit tragic. New groups arrive. A new set of yahoos comes out of the woodwork, spouting the same hogwash as similar defenders of “Real America”, decades or even centuries before. Rinse, Repeat. Today’s video on Columbus Day peels those layers back a bit. 100 years ago, US bigots weren’t worried about Muslims or Mexicans, it was the Italians, and to a lesser extent the Slavs and the Jews. If you look back at this earlier era of bigotry, the arguments are almost exactly the same. The fear of change, “being swamped by multitudes” and having our culture changed never fades away. It’s never been justified either.
We’re in a weird panic transition moment in the United States today. Both of the great “threats” hyped by our modern morons, “Islamic Terrorism”, and the “Mexican Invasion” are fading away. As I predicted years ago, lower oil prices mean that there is less Gulf money for extremism. Also, Muslim countries outside of the gulf are getting rich enough to liberate themselves from the Saudi-CIA corruption of their versions of Islam. As I have also talked about at great length, migration from Mexico is basically done, and the few tens of thousands coming from Central America will never amount to the same sorts of numbers. Affirmative Action may keep the idea of a distinct Latin identity a little stronger than Italian-American distinctiveness, but in practical terms, the distinct group of Mexican migrants is already assimilating away.
The entrepreneurs that profit off of these old bigotries are still profiting, from YouTube to the White House. These panics are always strongest after the phenomena in question have passed, but savvier operators can already see them fading away. The Pentagon has now abandoned “terrorism” as a threat and they are now trying to push “great power rivalry” though that doesn’t really exist yet either. Forward Thinkers!
I don’t know who the next group to be panicked about will be. My hunch is that it will probably be Africans, as that continent is the only one that will be offering surplus population in the decades to come. Perhaps it will be Chinese or Indians, as the rising wealth of those countries, or perhaps a crisis in one of them leads to more migrants. We can be sure, however that there will be a new group for morons to panic about. This is profoundly sad of course, but it’s also a bit reassuring. We’ve seen these waves of bigotry before, and they’ve receded before. There is nothing new under the sun.
I don’t necessarily have too much trouble with hypocrisy. Any adult realizes that we’re all hypocrites to some degree. But we should know what we’re doing. And the level of hypocrisy illustrated in today’s video is pretty extraordinary. Yemen and Ukraine are two of the world’s hot spots. Essentially the same thing is happening in both countries. A more powerful neighbor is trying to invade and change them. If we care about international law, we should be more willing to make these comparisons more often.
Also, watching today’s video, I realized that I’m being deeply hypocritical in the video. I was so excited to make this comparison that I left my own country out of the analysis. The United States invades countries more frequently than anybody else does. The vid should definitely have mentioned that. But I think the point still stands. One day the US might be able to be constrained by international law as well. If we’re going to get there, we have to be willing to try to look at all conflicts with a little more objectivity. Which is hard for hypocrites like us…
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.
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.