It’s amazing how little investment the US has in the priorities of our allies. It’s well established that our foreign policy establishment is utterly incapable of seeing anything from the perspective of any of our “adversaries”. This would be a tremendous problem if the United States were actually in anything like a real competition with anybody. The dumbest actor in a contest rarely wins. But it’s not a contest. At this point, we’re so much more powerful than any of our opponents that it just doesn’t matter (leaving aside moral questions). What we should be doing, in this waning, but still present historical moment, is building up our position with allies, and working to stretch this sweet spot out as long as possible. We’re doing the exact opposite of that, of course.
A system that wants to stand the test of time needs to be aware of, and at least not obstruct, the wishes of smaller members of that system. As today’s video illustrates, we’re not doing that. Our oldest and strongest allies in Europe have opted to kick off the “New Cold War” by committing to an investment agreement… with China. This should be a wake up call. I doubt it will be.
One of the best things about doing commentary on YouTube is the feedback. Tuesday’s video is the second installment of my series on Algeria. It covers a lot of the same territory as my first video on Algeria, which was mostly just an appreciation of the country’s amazing history. But by posting that first video, I got a ton of comments that helped to guide some reading on my part, that helped me form more confirmed opinions on the country and its history. Tuesday’s video has gotten some very flattering appreciation. A handful of Algerian commentators have pointed out that my coverage is worlds better than any other English language source. This is less a celebration of my work than an indication of how bad US coverage of the country is more generally. I read two books, one of which I don’t find particularly trustworthy, and read about 1,000 YouTube comments, half of which were one sentence critiques of my figures and my neglect of the Berber population. With just that, I was able to do a better job talking about the country than almost any English language journalist. I’m kind of proud of that, but it’s also pretty sad.
All that said, while I’ve gotten a few very positive comments on this video, I’ve gotten many more that are pretty negative. Now that I’m diving deeper into the politics of the country, and making opinions, I’ve triggered a negative reaction. But I take heart from the fact that most of what people are complaining about is my read on the politics of the moment, and what people think of the current president. Nobody is complaining about my take on the history leading up to this year anymore. And with my next video on Algeria, probably a year or so from now, I’ll be able to incorporate criticisms of others. Iterative analysis. I like it.
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?
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?
Man, #Brexit just keeps getting worse. I’m very pleased with how this video on the Northern Ireland problem performed. A month later it’s got over 14K views, which is more than enough to consider it a success. What’s more, I got a ton of positive feedback from all over on how well it dealt with the issue… in addition to the usual nastygrams. It appears that there are a lot of Brexit supporters in the UK who have not given this issue any thought at all. As the chaos has spun up over the past month, Northern Ireland has gotten even less attention. UK Prime Minister Boris’s inability to get the Parliament to do anything has raised hopes that we will get past the October 31st deadline with another extension, this mess will drag on for another year or so, Brexit could never happen, and maybe nobody will ever have to think about Ireland’s troubles ever again. I’m not so optimistic. In fact, I’ve got a kind of disastrous scenario for this month that’s been bugging me.
Most assume that the UK government will be bullied into asking the EU for another extension. I agree that that will probably happen. It’s what happens after that’s more suspect. Everybody assumes that if Boris asks, the EU will grant another three to six months of time for fiddling about. The EU doesn’t want a no-deal either. But what if the calculation is wrong? My understanding is that all 27 EU countries need to vote unanimously to grant another extension. What if just one of those countries decides “fuck it!”? A no-deal Brexit would be bad for Europe, but the past three years of indecision and investment stagnation have been pretty bad too. It’s quite possible that Britain will ask for another extension this month, and the EU will say no. I’m not someone that thinks No-Deal will be as instantly catastrophic as advertised. At this point, it would have to kill more people than the bubonic plague to be spun as anything other than “not as bad as they said it would be”. But I do believe the long term result will be terrible for the UK eventually, and in Northern Ireland almost immediately.
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.
Multi-polarity doesn’t have to be a disaster. It certainly could be. As competition between the US and China has ramped up over the past year or so, the focus has been on violent possibilities, and the US defense department has led the charge. That’s certainly the point of the exercise. China is being turned into an enemy so we can sell weapons. The competition now looks to me to be inevitable. But, as this video entreats, we can change the tone of that competition.
We can change the frame from war to friendly competition. The last cold war had horrific consequences, but it had positive ramifications as well. If we act proactively we can optimize the mix of the next competition for positivity rather than horror. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s not. The tone of the New Cold War will determine whether or not it kills us.
I should really cover Mexico more, as I finally do with today’s video. This channel is very much based on US policy. Sure, I go in depth on the history and politics of a range of other countries, but it’s almost always in the framework of their significance for US foreign policy. Mexico is probably more important for the long term success or failure of the United States than any other country, except maybe China. Mexico is vastly more important for the US than any of the Middle Eastern wars or conflicts I have described.
Mexico is a trillion dollar economy. There are not many of those. It also shares one of the world’s longest borders with the United States. As I talk about today, there’s a good chance that the US and Mexico are going to converge further over the next couple decades, creating a block, with just three countries, that could remain vastly richer than China throughout the century. Or it could go in the other direction. Drug Wars, border nastiness, and outright US racism could derail this happy future. This is a topic I should cover more.