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.
Winston Churchill is a complicated figure. He’s also a cherished one for the British, and for white dads across the English speaking world. He’s seen completely differently by the Indians, millions of whom starved to death on his watch, and there are very few others in the broader British empire that would have had much good to say about him. These historical arguments are important, and I don’t really have all that much interest in them one way or the other. But Winston Churchill is not just a historical figure. He’s a symbol. That glorious year and a half, between Churchill’s coming to power, and successfully convincing the US to save Britain, are worth emulating and celebrating. But for US politicians, the vital belligerence that made Churchill so valuable for that destroyed world, is something that should constantly be applied to our infinitely safer, happier world. That’s nuts. Which is why I made today’s video.
Man, this video just gets more and more right with time. When I uploaded this one just over two months ago, it presented three reasons why Saudi Arabia should get the heck out of Yemen as soon as possible. Today I would add at least two more. First, the war is putting the safety and security of Saudi Arabia itself in more and more jeopardy by the day. Just a few weeks ago, the Yemenis pulled off history’s most devastating attack on Saudi oil infrastructure. This attack, and the indifference of world oil markets to it, both gravely undermine the Saudis. Over this past weekend, confused reports emerged that the Saudis may be losing large battles on or distressingly close to their own territory. Whether those reports are true or not, the fact that they can be believed should be terrifying to the Saudis.
There is an out from all of this. The Houthis are aware that their complete dominance of the battle space is actually a problem for them. If they push their advantage, and make real inroads in to Saudi territory, they could prompt a US response. They have proved their independence, and remain more interested in peace than the Saudis are. The Houthis have offered to cease attacks on Saudi territory, if the Saudis will agree to do the same. This is a real opportunity. So far, the Saudis have reacted by murdering a bunch of Yemeni families from the air. They should really start pursuing peace before it’s too late.
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.
It’s weird for a channel that covers so much death and destruction, but I don’t actually think about my own mortality much. That’s not to say I don’t think about age. In fact I’ve always been obsessed with age, and the passage of time. “Can you believe that we’re 20!, 30?, 35!” etc. etc. But I’ve never really thought about the end much, just sort of assuming there would always be more time to do everything. Turning 40 certainly puts this sort of thing in perspective. Reading the obituaries of people with very full lives, just a decade or two older helps with that too.
So I’ve been a bit maudlin lately. But, as I point out in this video, turning 40 is also very helpful. It’s given me a bigger sense of my own frailty, but also a sense of my own power. I could certainly get hit by a bus tomorrow ( especially with the amount of bicycling I do in New York City), but how much life I have left is largely in my control. That’s a powerful thing. It’s also left me a little less obsessed with age as well. All the milestones have passed. What I do with the time left, and how much time I have left is largely up to me…
This video has turned out to be quite prescient. Closing in on two months ago, when it became clear that the UAE was withdrawing some troops from Yemen, I proposed three possible scenarios for what it would mean. All three are still worth considering, but it’s looking like the one I flagged as most likely is the one that’s happening. It’s a sort of Vietnam 1973 scenario. The Saudis have lost, but they won’t acknowledge it yet, and there is plenty of murder and destruction to come before it becomes obvious to everyone with a 1975 style “helicopters on rooftops” moment.
I didn’t anticipate how quickly things would fall apart, however, with Saudi and UAE proxies engaging in open warfare in the only major Yemeni city that their “coalition” has managed to take. I think the Vietnam parallel stands though. Since World War II we have been lucky enough to see very little inter-state war. Much of the suffering in the world has come in the context of civil wars. This Saudi invasion of its neighbor is only one of a handful of such examples since the 1940s. Vietnam is one of those examples, and the parallels will just get more and more obvious. As sad as this is, it is a bit heartening to see that the US failure in Vietnam wasn’t some unique failure of will, it’s just really fricking hard to invade a country in the modern context. The Saudis are doing even worse than we did, much more quickly.
The US invasion of Iraq also fits into the Vietnam structure pretty well, as I documented five years ago…
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.
At the end of today’s video I allude to a very basic principle that shouldn’t need explanation, but kind of does. Put simply: Conflict is bad. It’s not always bad, of course. Competition can be tremendously helpful. It can inspire us, and help us achieve new and better things as a species. My hope is that China and the US will be goading each other on for centuries, out to Mars and beyond. But this healthy competitive process can be corrupted.
There are a number of relationships, that the US government carefully maintains, that have fallen into permanent disrepair. Healthy competition has devolved into useless dick waving contests, and pointless geopolitical chess games that kill people. The US-Iran relationship is the classic example, North Korea is another. The greatest tragedy of this decade is the fact that another relationship, between the US and Russia, has fallen into this pattern as well. Relationships can have virtuous or vicious cycles going on, and relations with all these countries are quite vicious.
I tend to blame the US for this, but it does take two to tango, and there are hardline elements in all our manufactured enemies that help to keep the vicious cycles going. And it really is a collaborative effort. Iran’s theocratic regime can’t exist without the US defense industry funded war-mongering think tanks and politicians, and vice versa. We have gotten to a deeply sad point where the only people who have trusted expertise on these issues are perpetuators of the vicious cycle with Iran. Figuring out how to unscrew those relationships is one of the missions of this channel. But it’s far better to avoid starting the disaster in the first place. It’d be really good if we could avoid getting into an Iran style vicious cycle with China. Today’s video on the Uyghurs ends with that plea.
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…