I don’t usually mind Twitter personality and defenestrated Vox Media founder Matt Yglesias that much. But a couple weeks back he engaged in an argument I’ve been dying to make a video about for years. So with this video I took the opportunity to complain about the irritating data point that Defense Spending has fallen as a percent of GDP, and how meaningless it is in the context of the US federal budget. I feel like I got outside my wheel house a bit, maybe diving a little too deeply into accounting I don’t fully understand, but I think it makes for a fun video.
It’s absurd how little we know about what the United States is up to in Africa. Because people care about it more, there is a fair amount of scrutiny of US actions in the Middle East. But in Africa the Pentagon has been doing essentially whatever it wants, with very little scrutiny… for over 20 years now! With today’s video I attempt to use some recent reporting to pull the veil back a bit.
As promised, I’m going to spend this week’s blog post weighing in on “When Turkey Destroyed It’s Christians“, an infuriating article written by two academics, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, and published by the Wall Street Journal this past May…
In 1915, the Young Turk government that was losing World War I for the Ottoman Empire embarked on a program of genocide against its Armenian minority. Outside of Turkey you won’t find anyone who disputes that, and you certainly won’t find anyone to dispute that here. The Armenian Genocide happened, full stop. Bludgeoning the Turks with this fact until they admit it is a fair thing to do.
That’s not what this Wall Street Journal article does. It attempts something much more sweeping and sinister. With the US-Turkish relationship more fraught than it has been since at least the 1970s, we should be trying to understand Turkey better. Instead, the two authors offer us a highly prejudiced and incomplete essay damning Turkey in irresponsibly sweeping terms over its history with its Christian minority. The Wall Street Journal has given these arguments credibility they do not deserve by publishing them. The article, and the book it is based on, argues that across four decades and three completely different governments, the loss of territory on three continents, and the immolation of a 600 year old empire, the Turks engaged in a conscious multi-decade program of anti-Christian genocide that is directly comparable to the Final Solution cooked up by the Nazis. The authors actually say that in the closing paragraph of their article. By doing so they manage to cheapen the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and commit a pretty horrific slur against the Turkish people. To my mind it’s quite similar to saying that the pre-Nazi Weimar German government of the 1920s and 1930s and the post World War II West German government are just as guilty of Genocide as the Nazis are, implying that there is something naturally evil about the Turks. These authors seem to be motivated by exactly the same sorts of blind nationalist disrespect for history that Armenian Genocide deniers are. The lead “historian” on this is Benny Morris, an Israeli scholar who distinguished himself in his youth by pointing out that the foundation of Israel involved more ethnic cleansing of Arabs than is usually admitted. He has spent his career since writing about why ethnic cleansing to found the Israeli state was actually a good thing. He’s a figure associated with justifying the political projects of his own country, and not an expert on this era. Dror Ze-evi, the second author, does appear to be an Ottomanist, but he’s either not a good one, or he knows he’s being dishonest.
If you’re familiar with the history, you’re already aware of how deeply insulting it is to tar Ataturk and the Ottoman sultans with the crimes of the Young Turk Genocidaires, but let’s run through this a bit. It takes a lot for me to defend the late Ottoman Sultans, but the outright Nazi comparison does the trick. The fundamental historical point that the WSJ article never mentions is that across the 19th century, the Ottoman empire was losing territory. As they lost territory, their central lands in Anatolia filled up with ethnically cleansed Muslims from across Europe. If you walk through central Athens, you will find multiple former mosques or burnt out relics of them. Well over 100,000 Turks were kicked out of Greek territory after Greece’s independence in 1830. There are churches in Istanbul today, but there are no mosques in Athens. The Russians repeatedly invaded Ottoman territory, usually forced back more by pressure from the other European powers rather than Ottoman strength. Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian independence happened in stages of mixed sovereignty and self determination. As these territories became more self-governed, atrocities against Muslims, some of whom had been there for 600 years, became more frequent. To its eternal shame the Ottomans engaged in atrocities as well. Interestingly the WSJ article does not mention the Bulgarian massacres, which were some of the worst anti-Christian massacres carried out by the Ottoman government. This is because mentioning those atrocities would require acknowledging the other side of the story, decaying Ottoman control in Europe and the accompanying ethnic cleansing of Muslims. It’s kind of hard to write a hit piece alleging one-sided Turkish ethnic cleansing if you mention actions that were carried out by Muslim populations that no longer exist. The late Ottoman sultanate was a brutal, vicious, failure, losing miserably and committing great atrocities. But were they Nazis? No. Were they even as bad as the Russians, Belgians and Americans of the time? No. They just failed where the Russians, Belgians and Americans succeeded, so their atrocities are harder to wave away.
The Young Turk government that took power from the Sultan in 1908 initially included a lot of propaganda about a new understanding between Turks and minorities. Some of its leaders may even have believed that propaganda. Under the pressures of losing World War I, they carried out a genocide against the Armenians in 1915. Nothing to defend here. Though I would argue that the writers of the WSJ article ARE defending the Young Turks, by pretending that their horrific actions were part of some over-arching Turkish plot, not their own unique responsibility.
It’s the last bit of the WSJ article argument that is truly outrageous. After the Ottomans lost World War One, the victorious allies, chiefly Britain, offered a whole bunch of Turkish territory to Greece. This left out the inconvenient fact that the Turks still held that territory at the end of hostilities with the allies. The Greeks invaded, sweeping across Anatolia, carrying out all manner of atrocities against local Turks as they went. The Turks under Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, rallied and pushed them out, committing atrocities against local Greeks as they went. At the end of the war, after the invading Greeks had been pushed out, a population transfer was agreed. 1.5 million Christians were moved to Greece, and Half a million Muslims were moved to Turkey. This imbalance is explained by the fact that as Greece expanded throughout the 19th century, they had ethnically cleansed all Muslims as they went, while the Ottomans didn’t get started on systematically extirpating Christians until 1915. The Population transfer was a horrible thing, and not something that the international community would accept today. At the time however, it was seen as an appropriate solution. What’s important to remember here, is that unlike the situation with the Armenians, the Greek government was equally at fault for what happened to the Greeks of Anatolia, if not vastly more culpable than the Turkish government. The WSJ article doesn’t mention any of this detail at all. It simply slots the end of Greek presence in Anatolia into its fairy tale of Turkish evil.
History is important. Harvard, the WSJ, and these “scholars” may not think so, but I do. The Wall Street Journal’s brand may be fading in the Murdoch era, but it still matters. People reflexively believe things that are printed there. Because I lived in Turkey for 6 years, multiple people have reached out to me to talk about this article. I see it pop up on twitter all the time, especially in light of the recent non-existent anti-Kurdish genocide in Northern Syria. Turkish history is not a topic that many in the US have really dived into. If the WSJ says something about it, it will believed. Many Americans now believe that the Turks had a four decade, concerted, out of nowhere plot to murder all of its Christians. That’s not true. The fact that this article exists is an example of the “Plot against Turkey” I talk about in today’s video.
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.
Let me preface this by saying again that I’m not any kind of Israel expert, but I figured I should talk a bit more about the claim at the end of today’s video, that Israel has helped reduce its neighbors to smoking ruins. The question of Israel’s role in the run-up to the Iraq war is controversial, but the consensus seems to be that they were very much for Bush’s invasion, and did what they could to promote it. The current Israeli government’s almost gleeful support for the destruction of Syria is less controversial. Israel is officially neutral, but in 2017 they conceded that they had carried out around 100 airstrikes against Syrian and Hezbollah targets over the course of the war, and they have acted as a stumbling block to the peace process.
I think this is all a terrible mistake. This policy of aiding in the destruction of Iraq and Syria might have made sense during the Cold War. It would have been vicious then, but it would at least have had some justification. During that era, when they were faced with the opposition of a vastly better armed Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the opposition of the Soviet Union, taking these sorts of actions would have been rational. Israel’s current leadership still acts as if they face this sort of existential threat. They don’t. And the world knows it. The desperately promoted threat from Iran is virtually nonexistent. The policies against Iraq and Syria that Israel supported did give Iran more power on the ground in these countries, but Israel remains free to bomb them at will in Syria. Most of Iran’s weapons systems date back to the Shah. Iran has made some limited progress with missile technology, but the use of that technology would quickly result in a complete roll-back of Iranian power in the region, and no doubt the destruction of multiple Iranian and Syrian cities by the Israeli and US air forces.
The Soviet Union is gone. Egypt and Jordan are now Israeli allies, and amazingly Saudi Arabia, if still officially hostile, is now largely seen as an Israeli ally as well. The international Palestinian terrorist threat of yore has been almost completely neutralized. It has been co-opted by the Palestinian Authority, and it has been fairly comprehensively rooted out of its old homes in Lebanon and Jordan. With the fences and walls around Gaza and the West Bank, the threat of a third Intifadah is largely meaningless. Palestinians would die in their thousands, in return for a few miles of burned Israeli farms. Netanyahu and company seem to think they are now secure enough to treat the Palestinians any way they want. This is a terrible mistake.
Despite all Israel’s protestations, the world, outside of Washington, DC, can now clearly see that it is more secure than it has ever been. All 21st century wars are media wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more so than others. Netanyahu’s behavior makes it look, even to Israel’s most natural allies, like Israel is THE destabilizing element in the region. Much of Israel’s support in the world, and in the US in particular, is based on the perception that the country is a plucky underdog. Killing Palestinians by the thousand, with the support of former enemies like Egypt, while increasing security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, does not fit that image. As today’s video says, Israel’s current leadership serves the interest of US defense contractors, not the interests of Israel.