One of the most frustrating aspects of coverage of Syria is the extreme disconnect between what the standard story is, and what is actually happening. “Assad and Russia are Winning!”
Despite the fact that a long-standing Russian ally has been destroyed over an eight year period. “Assad has murdered Half a million people!” Even though 150,000 of that half million are his own soldiers, and the civilian casualties are nowhere near as one sided as they are portrayed. My usual approach to this is quietly angry, and my next and last videos on the topic of Syria and the US-Turkey alliance are no exception to that. With this week’s video, however, I chose a different approach. I like this video because it is calm, detailed, brief and to the point. Anger is important, but I think this type of video is also useful for cutting through the bullshit. What do you think?
Saudi Arabia is in a terrible trap. Even the things that it thinks will help threaten its demise. As I pointed out in this video’s companion video, they want a US war with Iran because it would lead to a spike in oil prices, and more damage to competitors in Kuwait and Iraq than to themselves. But even this strategy comes with risks, whether they are caught up in the war or not.
I don’t have a ton of sympathy for the Saudi royal family, obviously, but it’s a situation worth appreciating. It’s Kafkaesque. They’ve constructed a paradise that no longer works. Every ploy they employ gets them closer to the edge. This video lays out the problem of the war with Iran, and this series lays out the broader problem.
One of the many irritating things about US foreign policy is its complete lack of imagination. We just keep running the same old scripts over and over. World War II, probably the US’s best war, and really the only one that can be called “good” in the 20th century, still provides the mental models for most foreign policy practitioners. This comes about in very conscious ways, such as the closing in on a century long insistence that everybody the US doesn’t like is Hitler, but I think it comes about in unconscious ways too.
In today’s video, I talk about the way that US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s foreign policy directly echoes FDR’s. They both wanted war, though for very different reasons. John Bolton is using similar tools, and as the past week illustrates he’s getting perilously close to bringing about the same results. But unlike FDR, he has no noble purpose. This is some scary stuff. But it’s also pitiful. We’ve advanced so much as a world over the past 70 years. It’s profoundly disappointing that the most powerful people in it are playing out scripts from another era.
Some videos come pretty easy, and today’s video is one of them. I really like it when new ways of looking at stuff pop into my head. The more I think about it though, there are other aspects to this I should have included. The shift in the oil market here is pretty extraordinary. It’s actually the birth of a sort of “Super OPEC”. It’s also an OPEC that’s a lot more dangerous for its members. With a US president in charge, especially a US president listening to Texas oilmen, military operations become a potent tool of market making.
The world, and the US, used to have a minimal investment in the stability of petro-states. In the long term, these places should be happier without US supported perma-leaders, but the short term looks increasingly grim. As oil demand peaks, the ballooning US petroleum industry will need to be protected. The US can do this by knocking off competitors one by one. This could be an underappreciated aspect of Libya’s permanent oil crisis since 2011. Petro-states on each side of the conflict have no incentive to get their proxies on the same page and producing more. Venezuela is being knocked out. So is Iran. Destabilizing Iraq would be very easy. Saudi Arabia is super shaky. A broader war in the Middle East would be horrible, but it would be pretty great for the new head of OPEC… The US president.
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.
Today’s video sort of unintentionally ended up being the second video in a series dealing with the ramifications of Donald Trump’s destruction of the Iran Nuclear Deal last year. The more I think about it, the better an “Iran Sanctions” series sounds. It’s interesting how much that one terrible decision will end up driving world politics for the next couple years, if not the next couple decades. Almost every day we see things happening that can in part be traced back to it, including Germany’s reluctance to act against Huawei the way the US wants, reported today.
Today’s video focuses on INSTEX, the new European exchange that is the first stab at building a post-dollar trading and banking system. It may seem like a boring topic, but if you understand it, whole volumes of current and future geopolitical maneuvering will be revealed to you. Today’s video does what very few do, and attempts to describe the history of the secondary sanctions imposed by the US in an engaging way. Supposedly journalism is a first draft of history. I’m kind of excited by the fact that nobody else is attempting that draft this way. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that a history focusing through the lens of the Iran Sanctions will provide a clearer picture of the 2020s than anything else.
It’s not really the focus of today’s video, which I wanted to keep light, but it really is fucking outrageous what the Defense Department is trying to pull off with its new National Defense Strategy. The Pentagon continues to use terrorism as a blank check for assassinations, kidnappings, and hyper-militarization in dozens of countries all over the world. The Pentagon has used it to scare the US public for decades now. They want to keep doing all of these things. But now that terrorism is fading, they want to perform a magic trick, keep all their money and toys, and continue with business as usual.
And they’re getting away with it. Washington, DC is super absorbed with talking about how much it hates Donald Trump, but is acting with surprising unity. Trump has started a trade war with China. The Department of Justice is pursuing cases against Chinese businesses with unprecedented and shocking vigor. The recently vacating “adults in the room” at the Defense Department were obsessed with China too. Every media group lightly poo poos Trump’s treatment of China… and then jumps on the bandwagon to talk about how scary and sinister China is. It’s outrageous really. Sigh.
Well at least we’re attempting to hold them accountable. Spill your glass for the War on Terror. It was a terribly wasteful and pointless way to spend a couple trillion dollars and a couple million lives.
So why am I the only guy talking about this? In today’s video I connect a bunch of dots to point out that Saudi Arabia’s investment program isn’t going to help them out of their current mess. In fact that investment program is more than a bit nuts. Funds that are desperately needed to reinvent the country are being sent to some of silicon valley’s riskiest money pits. It’s possible that these investments will make some money eventually, but it isn’t what I’d call likely.
The truth is that all of this information is out there. Today’s video wouldn’t be possible without some great financial journalism done by folks at Bloomberg and the Financial Times. The FT’s “Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund Scrambles For Resources” in particular was very useful. But this stuff is often behind paywalls, and only read by nerds like myself. This information is all out there, and it’s being acted on by serious investors. That’s why that magical city, NEOM, isn’t going anywhere, and its German CEO has already been shuffled off to another job. That’s why the Saudi-Blackstone infrastructure fund announced at the Saudi-Trump orb fest last year can’t find any other investors. The broader situation really is dire, far beyond the headline grabbing problems with Tesla and Uber.
This is a slow motion catastrophe. But it hasn’t made much of an impact on the broader consciousness yet. That’s because the Saudi PR machine is still working in high gear. Bloomberg, FT, and occasionally the New York Times will follow up on all these projects and their failings, in articles that are only read by a few tens of thousands of people. But when a new project is announced it’s in ALL the outlets, with videos, puff pieces, and endless social media placements. The more disturbing facts are all out there, and I’m proud that I got to bring them to you with today’s video.
Full disclosure: I own some Tesla stock and I’m actually pretty bullish on the company’s long-term chances. If Elon Musk can get his head on straight that is. That doesn’t mean it’s a good investment for Saudi Arabia…
Over the past year Saudi Arabia has experienced a perfect storm of factors in its favor. Asset prices in the US economy and elsewhere have gone nuts. Saudi Arabia is a country that owns a lot of stock, land and everything else, so that’s been very helpful. On the oil market front, the most important front there is for Saudi Arabia, they’ve had unprecedented cooperation on the OPEC production slow-down, and a series of competitors have given up millions of barrels a day in production due to sundry wars and dictatorships.
If Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plans for the future were ever going to work, 2017 would have been the year for it. But as this video shows, some of the key metrics that illustrate the hole Saudi Arabia is in haven’t changed much at all. As I said in last year’s video, and as I repeat in today’s video… Saudi Arabia is still finished.
Saudi Arabia is a US colony. It owes its existence to the British Empire, and it owes its continued existence to the United States. This is not widely known. Folks just assume that Saudi Arabia was always there, they got lucky with oil, and now we’re stuck with them. That’s not how it went at all. It’s probably worth documenting this claim in a longer blog post than normal. It’s a bit too complex to wrap into this video.
The Saud family, and its nasty relationship with religious extremism does go back a ways. I document this relationship at length in the essay, which I recommend you buy. They managed to put together a pretty impressive, if briefly lived state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They held Mecca and Medina briefly, from 1802 to 1818. They were booted out of there by an Ottoman Egyptian Army. The Saud family then managed to put together another chunk of land based around Riyadh, but by the 1890s they were refugees, forced to seek shelter in Kuwait. If you’d picked a family ca. 1910 to end up the most powerful (and possibly richest) of the last royal families standing it certainly wouldn’t have been the Sauds.
Which is where the British empire stepped in. In 1915 the British were fighting World War I against the Ottoman Empire, among others. They were looking to support any Arab leader they could against the Ottomans, who had controlled the Middle East since the 1500s. Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? That’s about the British support given to the Hashemite family, that had ruled Mecca for hundreds of years. The Arab Revolt that made Lawrence a celebrity was led by Faisal of the Hashemites. This was all lovely, stuck it to the Ottomans, and turned Faisal into a somewhat internationally respected figure.
This presented the British with a problem when the war ended in 1918. They had Faisal, a well respected, charismatic leader, with established connections to the Arab urban centers, and some modernizing instincts. Faisal had a pan-Arab mindset, and envisioned a unified, powerful and developing Arab state, stretching from his family’s territory in Mecca and Medina as far as Damascus and Baghdad, and maybe beyond. This was more or less what he had been promised during the War, and he went to the Paris Peace conference to press his case.
But the British didn’t want that. They wanted the territory for themselves. They got it, establishing “Mandates” in Palestine and Iraq. The Brits got Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the French got Damascus, establishing what became the ill-fated state of Syria. Arabia, or rather all the unimportant and desert bits of Arabia were left to the Hashemites. But not just the Hashemites. The British continued to support the Sauds, with cash subsidies, and a ton of surplus munitions from the war. It depends who you read, but many sources maintain that the British subsidies were the only thing keeping the dirt poor and enthusiastically anti-modern Saudi army going.
If you were the British who would you rather support as a neighbor? A charismatic descendant of the prophet, experienced in international diplomacy? Or a bunch of desert whackos? The desert whackos looked a lot less threatening. The British continued to support both families, but it’s unlikely that they were all that disturbed when the Sauds came screaming out of the desert and took Mecca and Medina in 1925. This conquest was accompanied by strikingly ISIS like destruction of ‘idolatrous’ Muslim heritage sites and massacres of non-combatants. The British didn’t lift a finger to help the Hashemites reclaim their historic lands. They felt a bit bad though, so they made Faisal King of Iraq. In May 1953 his descendants were massacred, and the monarchy was ended in one of Iraq’s many brutal changes of government. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the last ruling member of the Hashemite dynasty, descended from one of Faisal’s brothers. The Sauds got Mecca and Medina, the de facto leadership of Sunni Islam, and extraordinary oil wealth. The Hashemites got that really cool set from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The British catch a lot of flack for their mishandling of the Israel-Palestine issue, but if you ask me, their creation of Saudi Arabia is a lot more unforgivable.