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…
My book, and today’s video aren’t just intended as “blame America First” whining. They are intended as the basis for a new, saner approach to US foreign policy. One of the central problems in Washington, DC for the past 30 years is that we haven’t had a goal. We’ve had a ton of resources, a ton of professionals geared towards the outside world, and no clear sense of what to do with them since the end of the Cold War. Instead all these people have pursued a variety of conflicting goals. Some of them have been noble, some have been horrible, but in combination they have produced an effect that is disorganized in the most self-interested and chaotic way. With this series I hope to suggest a better way.
The mission of US foreign policy should be to stave off war for as long as possible. We should use our extraordinary power and reach to try to make the world a less dangerous place for everyone. This would do the world a great service, but it would also serve the United States in the best possible way. As I’ve also emphasized, it’s the United States that has the most power to lose from a new world war. So we should stop seeking it out in the deserts of the Middle East and in the waters of the South China Sea. We should stop sending the instruments of death to every country in the world we can, in ever accelerating amounts. If we stopped doing these things, I think we’d find that there is still plenty for Washington, DC to do. Even beyond the much larger problems that the United States has made, the world has many fault lines that could benefit from our diplomatic attention. Imagine a world with DC think tanks that were focused on solving Nagorno-Karabakh, or opening the border between Morocco and Algeria, rather than fomenting wars? It may all sound a bit pie in the sky, but once you’ve absorbed the arguments of today’s video, how could you want to do anything else?
I can’t seem to find it, but I believe it was Keynes who has this wonderful quote on the fact that so much of the world around us is shaped by the ideas of long-dead thinkers who nobody actually reads and whose names have been largely forgotten. Today’s video is about one of those thinkers, Halford Mackinder. He’s not a household name, but he creeps around the margins of any large history book you will read, and he still inspires a lot of bad foreign and domestic policy in countries all over the world. His “World Island” or “Heartland” thesis is part of the list of justifications people will offer for interventionist US foreign policy. But Mackinder’s influence always remains somewhat subterranean. Because it kind of has to. Because his ideas are crap.
If you actually read one of Mackinder’s books, which I did, his ideas sound more like a half-assed dungeons and dragons game than a serious theory of history and politics. And when you dive in and examine his assumptions about the upcoming 20th century, you realize they were all wrong. His idea of looking at geopolitics as a whole is rightly influential. His actual ideas about geopolitics and their future are frankly laughable. It’s amazing how influential you can get if you give a veneer of respectability to the paranoid visions of militarists. Today’s video demolishes Mackinder’s ideas.
With today’s video I try something new. Most of my video scripts come to me more fully formed, in a rush of inspiration. With this “Avoiding the British Empire” series, I’m trying something more ambitious. The first 9 episodes of the video series are meant to work with each other, building the case, and helping viewers arrive at a picture of the world that grows with each installment. The series is meant to be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure this has been entirely successful. I tend to focus on making discrete points and individually successful videos. My writing process is like that as well. This series is the first I can think of, where multiple videos started out as “Oh, I need to do this in this video”, rather than as a loose collection of thematically related issues. Many of the videos in the series predated the over-arching series structure. Today’s video did not. What do you think?
With today’s video we begin to get into the meat of it… This Avoiding the British Empire series does, in fact, have a point that it is getting to, beyond clever comparisons. This video represents the first half of the main thesis. Considering what we now know about Britain’s power in the 19th century, and how much less power everybody else had… one conclusion becomes inescapable:
World War I was Britain’s fault. I am already getting some pretty shell shocked comments on the video, but not many who dispute the point. I’d love to hear what you think!
There are some standard stories about the fall of the British Empire, like imperial overstretch, and the rise of nationalism world-wide. But they are rarely linked to what I see as the real cause of the Empire’s fall: incessant war mongering. As we close out this epic week of content on the British empire, World War One will take center stage. World War One has a much more central part in British mythology than it does in the US. That may be the reason why people are reluctant to draw the connection between that “victory” and the end of the Empire as closely as I do.
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.
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?
Two weeks later, it is beginning to look like I got fooled again, and the United States is not in fact leaving Northern Syria. But I’m not as crushingly disappointed as I was the last couple times Trump pulled this back in December of 2018, or back in March of 2018. After telling everybody we were withdrawing, we are apparently going back to Northern Syria to “take the oil”. I’m not as bothered by this, because this Syrian intervention is just too ridiculous to survive.
US intervention in Syria has always been darkly absurd and absurdly selfish. We spent billions to take down Assad, which created ISIS, which weirdly ended up with us spending billions to protect Assad from the Islamic State in the most convoluted way possible. But this new Trump initiative is too absurd to last. Trump seems to think he can just steal the oil, which is a moral and legal atrocity. The horror of it wouldn’t keep it from happening, but what will keep it from lasting is the pointlessness. Despite massive efforts from OPEC, Oil can’t get over 60 dollars a barrel, and Syria doesn’t have much oil at all. Neither Exxon nor any other US company has any serious interest in getting involved in something with such high risk and such little reward. The Pentagon isn’t actually arguing for Trump’s silly heist plan. What they want is to keep the oil from Assad, to keep the civil war going, and they are saying that they want to keep it from ISIS, which is pretty ridiculous, because as I’ve repeated again and again, it’s US involvement that keeps ISIS going.
The reason none of this really bothers me is that it can’t possibly last. When I ran a video last year claiming that Washington DC had won the war in Syria, it was the Kurds that were at the heart of that victory. The Kurds, or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were the perfect imperial tool for the United States. Because of the threat from Turkey, they were a capable militia force that desperately wanted to keep the United States in Syria for as long as possible. Thanks to Trump’s weird choices, the SDF is now protected by Assad, not the United States. And Assad happens to be the legal sovereign authority in Syria. He wants his oil back, and if anybody in the US or the world wants to preserve a pretense of international rule of law we will have to give it to him. This oil adventure could last as long as a year or two, but US power in Syria has been comprehensively broken, and that’s something that Syria, the world, and the people of the United States can continue to be grateful for. And, very weirdly, as this video shows, we owe it to Donald Trump.
I continue to be stunned by how little attention is paid to the issues raised in this video. The petty geopolitics of the Middle East and even Eastern Europe are nothing compared to the threat of Russia’s rickety nuclear program. We managed to get along with and do deals with the Soviets, who had a system committed to our destruction, why can’t we get on with vaguely authoritarian Russia? Especially when the main thing driving Russian authoritarianism is legitimate resentment of two decades of aggressive moves against Russia by NATO.
When the next nuclear accident or dirty bomb happens, or, god forbid, the first actual piece of nuclear terrorism, it will absolutely be the result of the break down in the relationship between Russia and the US. Russia is a ramshackle place that needs our aid and cooperation to keep nuclear materials from disappearing into the black market, not an arms race. But the anti-Russia drum beat continues. At least twice since I made this video, just over two weeks ago, Trump’s willingness to work with Russia has been used as a club against him. First his suggestion that Putin be invited back to the G-7 was held against him, and now it’s his slow-walking of lethal aid to Ukraine. Whether Trump has been bribed by Russia or not, these are both pro-peace moves!
Importantly, they are also ways that we could bring Russia back to the table, and avert the next nuclear disaster. Which is vastly more important than whatever concerns we may have in Ukraine or Syria. I guess this won’t be obvious until that disaster happens. Sigh.