Merry Christmas Everybody! I’m heading out of town in a couple hours, but I’m super psyched to be able to fill one of the year’s biggest gaps by putting out a Christmas eve video on Tunisia! I intend to do a better job of keeping on top of Tunisian and North African politics in the new year. In September and October they held a series of elections that I am very late in covering. Tunisia is probably the most important country in the Middle East/North Africa region. There’s a distinct chance that what they’re doing now will be remembered long after the decades of nastiness further East have been forgotten. One can hope anyway…
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.
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.
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…
One of the many irritating things about US foreign policy is its complete lack of imagination. We just keep running the same old scripts over and over. World War II, probably the US’s best war, and really the only one that can be called “good” in the 20th century, still provides the mental models for most foreign policy practitioners. This comes about in very conscious ways, such as the closing in on a century long insistence that everybody the US doesn’t like is Hitler, but I think it comes about in unconscious ways too.
In today’s video, I talk about the way that US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s foreign policy directly echoes FDR’s. They both wanted war, though for very different reasons. John Bolton is using similar tools, and as the past week illustrates he’s getting perilously close to bringing about the same results. But unlike FDR, he has no noble purpose. This is some scary stuff. But it’s also pitiful. We’ve advanced so much as a world over the past 70 years. It’s profoundly disappointing that the most powerful people in it are playing out scripts from another era.
In today’s video I made brief reference to Ilhan Omar and her supposed antisemitism. The most interesting thing about this is that most of the people pushing that story have no idea what she’s actually been accused of. The tweet from 2012, which she has apologized for, mentioned in the video, wouldn’t strike most of the world as antisemitic, but it definitely is according to US standards that I agree with. The controversies over the past few months aren’t antisemitic by any fair definition. She has simply called attention to the fact that US politicians are paid a great deal of money by organizations like AIPAC to privilege Israeli interests over US interests.
A year ago I probably would have been more skeptical of Omar, but the sad fact is that the US congress has proved their allegiance to Israel, over and over. The Omar controversy itself makes this clear, but there are much more concrete actions to point to. I don’t know much about the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanction” or “BDS” campaign against Israel. What I do know is that multiple state legislatures have imposed flagrantly unconstitutional laws that penalize US citizens that refuse to sign anti-BDS pledges. Regardless of the worth or evil of BDS as a program, that’s a straightforward limitation of the first amendment rights of US citizens in a foreign country’s favor. Before this year, I was content to chalk the anti-BDS excesses up to Evangelical Christians in red states who support Israel because they want it to die in the end times that they believe an Israeli state will bring about. The US courts have already ruled versions of these law unconstitutional, and I thought that that slow progress would deal with the issue. Unfortunately not. A bi-partisan group of legislators has mounted an anti-BDS crusade, and is trying to pass national law that allows States to discriminate on the basis of speech and association. That’s outrageous. That’s a clear example of US legislators being bought to put allegiance to Israel over the rights of US citizens. You can read more about this horror here.
Very few of the people who attack Omar have reckoned with this insanity. What’s more, they make assumptions about who she is, and what she believes. Many supposedly serious journalists attempted to pull the “Oh yeah, well why doesn’t she attack Saudi Arabia!?!?!” card. This is ridiculous because she is one of the most consistent voices in Congress against the US-Saudi destruction of Yemen. She is also a supporter of LGBT rights, something else that is ignored in the absurd attacks on her. Our government and media is trying to turn one of the most consistent and heroic opponents of US foreign policy into a racist caricature. It’s pretty awful.
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.
I wish I could make this channel about Yemen all the time. But I can’t. It would just get too depressing. It’s important to hit this topic as often as I can though. This doesn’t just come from my opposition to Saudi Arabia’s government, and the way they destabilize the region. Yemen is truly in the midst of a catastrophe. One of my regrets from the early stages of my Yemen series is the way that I use the UN’s blanket “12,000 people killed” language. The UN stopped counting the dead in Yemen years ago. A recent report puts the figures at over 55,000 dead.
And those are just the figures for the people who were killed directly by fighting. Large scale starvation is now reckoned to have killed 85,000 children in Yemen as well. The bodycount is mounting and the violence is getting worse. For nothing. For less than nothing. The Iran excuse the Trump administration keeps reaching for is a fantasy. It’s important for folks to know about this, because it’s not a difficult problem. The US could stop the war almost immediately, and it would lose nothing by doing so. Information is the key to the end of the tragedy in Yemen. That’s why I’ll keep making vids like today’s video, and why I’m quite proud of my series on the topic.
I’m excited to announce that with today’s video and last week’s video, I now have enough vids put together a full Iran playlist! It’s weird how this stuff develops. I never set out to make almost 30 videos that deal with Iran in some capacity, but I suppose it’s kind of inevitable when covering the delusions of US foreign policy.
It’s all in here, the foolishness of Trump’s abandonment of the Iran deal, the US press’s inability to cover Iran anywhere near fairly, and so much more. With today’s video, and last week’s vid, I think I’ve got a good core of five vids that cover the most important bases of US policy towards the country. I’d like to really dive in on Iran at some point, the country’s history is absolutely fascinating, but I’m pleased to add another “series” on this channel, even if it was somewhat more haphazardly constructed than the other ones…
As I said in today’s video, invading countries is a really stupid thing to do in the 21st century. It’s something I think about a lot, and it’s not focused on enough. It’s one of the best things about modern living. We tell ourselves that the United States doesn’t take territory like old empires because we’re such nice folks. This isn’t really backed up by the historical record. The US spent 50 years failing to subject the Philippines to imperial control as one example. If Iraq had worked out, the Bush administration famously wanted to build a broader empire in the middle east in quick succession. Nationalism quite rightly has a bad reputation, but this is one of its nicer aspects. Folks really care about who rules them today. Independence is something that is valued. Literate, nationalist masses, plus readily available explosives makes the old school kind of empire impossible. So even the most powerful countries find that conquest is too expensive.
It’s interesting to me that this principle isn’t more widely understood. It’s clear from almost every conflict the US has been involved in since World War II, yet we keep jumping into new countries and expecting different results. I suspect that the difficulty of conquest does not make it into most discussion of national security, because it would make it too clear how useless a lot of our military spending is. The Military Industrial Complex needs to pretend that conquest is still a thing that happens.