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?
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…
Watching today’s video, I don’t think I really hammered home the point I was trying to make with the section on Wolf Warrior 2. So let me do that here. The Chinese public is being primed to embrace the idea of “humanitarian” intervention in Africa. Modern China doesn’t have much of a history of international adventuring (other than scoring points on its borders with India and Vietnam), but “Chinese Hollywood” is doing its best to build support for it. The Chinese public apparently has a tremendous appetite for this kind of film. If you look at this list of the biggest Chinese blockbusters you can get a sense of just how dominant Wolf Warrior 2 has been. But following up in second place we have this year’s Operation Red Sea, which is apparently a vastly exaggerated recounting of the Chinese Navy’s extraction of Chinese nationals from the war zone in Yemen.
I actually sat through both of the Wolf Warrior movies, and I have a very long twitter thread to show for it. I’d recommend you read that twitter thread. The first Wolf Warrior film presented a very standard, and very old message. Essentially: “Leave Us Alone!”. The first film provided a bit of weird cognitive dissonance for this American viewer. It was profoundly odd to see all the tropes of large scale US action film making translated into a Chinese context. It was weird fun, but there was little in the message presented to object to.
As you’ll see if you read the twitter thread, Wolf Warrior 2 was not fun. It was downright scary. The messages presented were heavily in favor of intervention, and the whole movie implied that China had a responsibility to help the poor defenseless Africans its with massive military power. This is of course just a mirror image of the messages that Hollywood has been pumping into the US public for decades. It’s profoundly disturbing to see China’s nationalist messaging moving in the same direction. But that’s what is happening. Wolf Warrior 3 is apparently going to be about fighting terrorists. It’s really, really sad to see China adopting the worst parts of US militarist ideology. It’s hard to see how it won’t eventually lead to conflict, as I point out in today’s video.
Oh, and if you want to check out my whole “World War 3” series thus far, which takes a serious look at how this conflict, which I view as being decades off, might take place you can check it out here…
I’m no Donald Trump fan (to put it mildly) but occasionally, he’s absolutely right. He wants to get out of Syria. He said so back at the end of March. I have a nasty suspicion that his statement may be the reason we ended up bombing that poor country a few weeks ago. As I’ve documented fairly rigorously over the past couple years, almost everybody in “respectable” politics in the United States is angling for a wider war in Syria.
That’s why it’s so hard to find the basic information I’ve laid out in today’s video. The conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq are often talked about in broad terms. It’s conceded that the conflicts were mistakes, but we get bogged down in the details, and questions of the individual mis-steps and controversies. The bigger picture gets obscured. I’d argue that’s kind of the goal. Because if you back up a bit, and view the trajectory of these conflicts, you quickly realize that they are very similar. And, horrifyingly, this is exactly the trajectory we’ve embarked upon in Syria. Today’s video draws back the curtain.
Ahh the joys of half-remembered college courses! This week’s video is about Syria, but it’s also about the concept of agenda-setting, something I barely remember from my Political Science classes, back in Ann Arbor around the turn of the century. I couldn’t track down the book, or even the exact concept I was remembering, and I fear I may have made a bit of a hash of it. The video communicates what I wanted to say, but I think I mixed the concepts of agenda-setting and attention in a way that may not fit the model I learned back then.
Attention, what we pay attention to, individually and as a country is a very important concept, and one that I play with a lot on this channel. Agenda-setting, as I remember, is a good deal drier. There are a number of stakeholders in government and society that compete to bring about legislative action. Social media and our great orange president change the calculus. It may actually make sense to include the attention span of the individual voter, and that voter’s media consumption habits in any discussion of agenda-setting today.
I’m not sure that clarified anything, but I wanted to at least mention that the version of “agenda-setting” here may not fit what my professor was talking about. I remain very proud of today’s video however.
Everybody thinks that the Middle East is different somehow. It’s really not. The real reason it’s a mess isn’t “centuries old hatreds” or the “oil curse”. 30 years ago, much of the rest of the world was just as screwed up. The reason the Middle East is still a mess, is because it remains the subject of competition between regional and world powers. The US and Saudi Arabia against Iran, and Israel against everybody else (supposedly), has kept a “Cold War” dynamic going in the Middle East long after it has faded everywhere else.
China, the only power that may one day rival the United States, is a paid up member of the US system. “Competition” in the rest of the world is about “Trade Wars” not “War Wars”. The US has provided a good enough deal to get everyone on the same page. Donald Trump wants to end that. He has a straightforwardly mercantilist, or even mercenary way of looking at the world. As I put it in the video, he wants to replace a generous deal with “F#*K you, pay me!”. These rough edges might be in the process of being shaved off, but it’s worth looking at what would happen to the world if he got his way.
Trump’s world would be one of renewed competition between the US and regional powers on every continent. It wouldn’t be one of great power war, not during Trump’s term anyway, but it would mean more proxy wars. Likely locations are some you’ve heard of, like Ukraine and Libya, and some you might not have thought of, like Thailand and Azerbaijan. Political tussles that are worked out locally today would quickly attain an international dimension. The Cold War’s ability to turn every local issue into competition between the US and the USSR was extraordinary. In a world of renewed competition between regional powers, this dynamic would resurface. In the words of Thucydides…
“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
Let’s try to avoid that shall we?
I should probably explain what I’m up to with this World War 3 Series I’ve been developing over the past couple months. On one level it’s a shameless bid for views. YouTube loves World War 3. There’s a lot of stuff out there insisting that world war is imminent. One of the most annoying bits of fake news during the 2016 election was the assumption that Hillary Clinton would bring it about if she were elected. My annoyance has now transitioned to the folks who insist that Trump is going to turn the world into a cinder. The chances of that are definitely higher than they would have been under Clinton, but I think they are still pretty trivial. If we’re looking for a partner for World War III, we’ve got the same problem we’ve had since 1989. Nobody’s really interested. In the first episode in this series “Will Trump Start a War With China?” I address China’s inability to challenge us today, and Trump’s possible role in encouraging a conflict down the line. In Part two, “Is Russia Winning?” I laid out why they are pretty clearly not.
So in one sense, the point of this series is to get people to relax. But it’s not that I don’t think World War 3 is possible. In fact I think it’s inevitable. The only question in my mind is when it happens. Will it happen 50 years from now, or 500 years from now? It’s our responsibility to push that day off for as long as possible. That’s the point of this series beyond the clicks. The internet shouldn’t be talking about World War III the way it does, but it’s a good thing to think about nonetheless. We humans are violent folks. Past performance is no indicator of future results, of course, but the every year that goes by without a conflagration is a win for us. We need to think more seriously about how to keep that streak going. Which is exactly what today’s video tries to do.