The times they are a’changing! Maybe it’s just turning 40, but I really do think US politics and society are undergoing a bit of a sea change. Nobody can argue that the past three years have been fun. On the other hand, I think that, so far, this period of transition is infinitely less bruising than the one the country went through in the 1970s and 1980s. In today’s video I try to knit the New Deal and Reagan eras into a single narrative of progress and change. It is punctuated with Joker level chaos of course.
I really do believe that 2020 presents an opportunity to help the country move on to its next cycle of growth and progress. I have no idea who would best represent and shape that change. But I do know that whoever gets elected in November, even if it’s Donald Trump, will have that opportunity. I’d really rather it wasn’t Donald Trump. Today’s video sets out my general attitude to US history and the 2020 election. It’s useful viewing if you want to know my biases before this year of election madness.
I feel like the broader arc of Trump’s Iran policy has been ignored recently. The incredibly flashy and violent gyrations of escalation have gotten a lot of coverage, but there isn’t enough emphasis on why we’re here. Sure, I suppose it’s fun to get bogged down on the question of whether or not assassinating the general of a country we are not at war with is a good idea, but we’re kind of missing the forest for the trees. No matter what you think of the Soleimani killing, we should be more focused on how we got here. And that’s what I try to do today with this video. I attempt to evaluate Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” policy against Iran, and I find it wanting.
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…
I don’t like covering breaking news topics. I’m happy to produce a video on a deep seated issue that gets sparked by something in the news, but I don’t like making predictions or doing video takes about an on-going story (that’s what twitter’s for!). Mid-stream analysis, the bread and butter of the cable news networks, is largely bullshit. Unfortunately, for today’s video, Khalifa Haftar of Libya ambushed me. On March 26th, I promised to do a video on Libya, a topic I had already been researching for a week or two. On April 4th, Khalifa Haftar invaded Western Libya, throwing everything up in the air.
Half of this video was drafted before April 4th. As the news has rolled in, my estimate of Haftar, already pretty negative, continued to plummet. I have tried to make this video consistent and informative in its presentation, but I’m not sure I pulled it off. A video’s title is very much a part of the experience. Usually it just advertises and reflects the content, but I think with today’s video, more buffeted by events than I like, the title may present the conclusion. I shot this video last Thursday, and have continued to research and follow developments as they have come. Haftar is not the savior he is sometimes presented to be. I hope today’s video gets that across.
This video would not have been possible without the International Crisis Group’s Libya coverage. On country after country I have found their work invaluable. They tend to be my starter source for one-shot videos like this where I won’t be reading multiple books.
After today’s video had been shot, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that Haftar has Saudi Arabia’s full support in his destruction of Libya’s chances for a settlement.
I used this headline on Haftar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the video. Keep in mind that the National is a United Arab Emirates publication, so this article may be more useful for what the UAE wants you to think about Libya, than what is actually going on.
I also used this headline from Reuters, and the article provides a nice discussion of Egypt’s shady bombing campaigns in Libya. Reuters is a US publication, so of course it’s going to downplay the fact that Washington, DC is, at root, the responsible party in this nightmare.
Gah! I’m super late with today’s video! Just like 40 minutes shy of the deadline! So I’m not going to do the half-assed ruminating I was planning. But it gives me an opportunity to ask an important question. Does anybody read these things? I put time and effort into these blog posts every week, and I’m not sure anybody even looks at them. So do you look at them? Let me know, either in the comments or on twitter if you’re not down for the Disqus. Many thanks…
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.
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.
Budgets are boring right? Not really. They are certainly complex, and passing them is complicated, as Washington, DC’s seemingly perpetual shut-down dance shows. But the question of paying for government is the most important one imaginable. Time and again in history we see great empires brought down by the simple question of “How do we pay for this?”
In the 1500s the Spanish Empire encircled the world, and controlled something like half of Europe, if not more. Their American territories brought a constant stream of precious metals. They were brought down mostly by the fact that they didn’t understand inflation, and defaulted on their debt repeatedly. In the 1920s the British Empire reached it’s largest extent. The “Sun Never Set” on the British Empire. 40 years later it was gone. Because they couldn’t pay for it. The holders of British debt in the United States got to dictate British foreign policy in a few crucial instances.