Friday Good Reads and Quick Hits

It’s been a busy sort of week at the homefront, but we’ve got some exciting articles in the hopper for next week. In the meantime, to slake the omniscient society-hurdling thirst percolating in your word-hungry oppressed and power-lusting eyes (ed note: I’ve been taking writing lessons from Mr. Sean Penn!), here are some quick hits and good reads.

  • The White Sox, now projected to be among the teams with a 162-0 record, are also on pace to hit over 900 home runs this year, a new MLB high mark! In a year that’s between rebuilding and contending, that was a fun start. Matt Davidson has been the forgotten man, going from a top prospect to bust to a steady player. I don’t really expect him to hit three dingers every game (which I think is generous and understanding of me), but he has undeniable raw power, and could become a genuine steadying surprise. As it is, this is the weirdest and worst off day in baseball history.
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Giancarlo Davidson

  • Sticking with baseball for one more second, read David Roth’s little piece on Rickey Henderson the Involved Landlord. He’s exactly how you’d expect Rickey to be, sweeping the floors with his own nutball perfectionism, even explaining, in the traditional third person, that ‘Rickey needs Rickey’s houses to be clean!” It’s a bit of fluff, but a fun brief look at one of the 10 greatest, and probably 10 weirdest, baseballers of all time. And while you’re at it, take a look at Rickey’s stats. Did you know he led the league in stolen bases in 1998, 18 years after the first time he did? That’s nuts. Granted, 66 wasn’t super high for him, but it still would have led the league last year. Actually, it’s only been surpassed 5 times in the last two decades. That’s partly because we’ve gotten smarter about the risk/reward of a stolen base, but to reiterate my earlier point: that’s nuts.
  • All right, slightly more serious: read Peter Salisbury’s latest in-depth report on Yemen for Chatham House, this time on the Southern Question. I don’t think there is any question that the south is key to all of Yemen, and it is being largely ignored in the Saudi/Houthi/US/GCC/Qaeda-ISIS mix. But the Southern Question is really asking “what is Yemen“, and the answer doesn’t seem to be reflected in anyone’s policy. This piece is comprehensive and important, and you should read it all.
  • As a side note, Salisbury’s piece and a maybe-poorly-worded tweet by me spurred a bunch of private conversations, some angry but mostly civil, with southern Yemenis. I’m working on a long piece about the Southern Question that was born of those conversations, and obviously influenced by Salisbury’s great paper.
  • Alana Semuels has a harrowing piece on poverty and segregation in Chicago, making the what-should-be-obvious-point, often completely ignored in our politics and punditry, that “people at the bottom are struggling as much as they always have, if not more—illustrating that it’s not just the white rural poor who are being left behind in today’s economy.” Chicago is vibrant and wealthy and beautiful, filled with fit and educated people biking along luxurious lakefront trails and eating at incredible restaurants, and it is a scuffling dangerous and violent city, where life can be snuffed out in a flash of an instant, the police are another gang, and opportunity is denied by dint of education, by the misery of geography, and by the willful neglect of history. Something as simple as a rail line means the difference between getting a job and staying poor. These two cities rarely intersect.
  • This was illustrated to me at the March for Our Lives on Chicago’s near west side last week. The rally was held in Union Square, now at the far end of one of the hottest restuarant-and-condo districts in the city, which until recently was a meat-packing district. Beyond it a few blocks, the city becomes the “other city”. The rally was filled with the Good Sign Crowd, as boisterous as we were at the women’s marches. But the students, who live in the forgotten Chicago, weren’t interested in the NRA or in Trump or even, really, in Parkland. They reminded us, without pulling any punches, that they were afraid for their lives every day, and that a vast system, in which the petty bloodmanship of the NRA only played a part, kept them oppressed and poor. Those were the two cities colliding; then half of us walked back east, back toward downtown, back toward the gleaming skyscrapers and cool brunch places and open suburbs. The other went back to their lives.
  • London could face water scarcity in 2040! As Circle of Blue points out,  “demand for water could outstrip London’s supply by 2040″, by as much as 20%. Maybe when the rich areas of the world start to run out of water, as opposed to just the poor hot places, we might take it seriously. Ah, but 2040 is a long time away, right? There’s no need for…for…
  • Unrelatedly, 2040 from 2018 is equidistant as 2018 is from 1996.
  • But of course, things don’t just get bad the year of projections. It’s steadily worse. Like, when they say the seas will rise X meters by 2100, it’s not like we’ll go to bed dry and wake up deluged. Climate change is already happening, and happening quickly. That’s the point of this Inverse article about the record rate of arctic ice disappearance. The ice disappears because the planet is getting warmer, and disappearing ice means less solar reflection, which means more heat trapped on the planet. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, which is why long-term projections might actually be optimistic.
  • Another stark reminder of that is Noah Sneider’s Letter from Siberia, in this month’s Harper’s. Titled “Cursed Fields”, it is about an anthrax outbreak that slaughtered reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, where reindeer are the primary economic driver for the Nenet people. While there are some who think the anthrax (or some other poison) was spread by Gazprom to drive away the locals in order to access the sweet sweet oil and gas of the peninsula, the probable truth is even more terrifying. Global warming is melting the permafrost (as seen in vast sinkholes and methane explosions, another self-reinforcing cycles), and unleashing microbes dormant from earlier outbreaks. And maybe even earlier diseases to which we aren’t immune. It’s a gripping piece, and a great look at a life in a vast and difficult land, an old way of life uprooted, for ill and for good, by oil and gas in the last century. Sneider also points out that Russia stands to benefit enormously from the treasures unlocked by a melting permafrost, which go hand-in-hand with the diseases pouring forth.
  • Happy Easter and Passover to everyone celebrating. Easter isn’t my favorite holiday, per se, but it might be my favorite one to celebrate. We go to my Aunt Marilyn’s house, as we have every year since I was born. She, and my Uncle Leo while he was alive, lived in the same house for that entire time, raised a family, had us over every year. It is in Wheeling, which is now a booming suburb, but when they moved there was past the outskirts of Chicagoland. Even when we were going there when I was growing up, there was farmland all around their little pocket of houses. It struck me as odd and exotic then, and I felt a powerful nostalgia for it that I couldn’t place, even while it was still there. Maybe it was just being there once a year, every spring, in dewy and never-quite-warm days, but I always felt an intense and unspeakable loss for the day even while I was there, even while I was a kid. And every year the farmlands got smaller, subdivisions were built, and now those subdivisions are old, showing their age, part of the landscape. The slow flattening of America caught up to it, homogenized. But I still see parts of the openness I remember, in carved out fields filled with power lines, in old drainage ponds that used to be for irrigation, in cul-de-sacs that seemed designed for Spielbergian heroes in that 80s borderland of sameness and weirdness, of suburbia and the still-wild rural areas in which monsters lurked. That’s gone now. It was fleeting even while it existed. But you know what they say: you can’t stop progress.

bloom

  • But, on the plus side, I can always say “I remember when this was all farmland”, and feel good and properly old.
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Endless War and Our Complicity: The Failure of the Sanders-Lee Yemen Bill Continues Genocide and America’s Brutalization

(Note: I was working on this piece for another publication before the bill in question failed to reach the floor, thanks to the shameful and bloodsoaked votes of 10 Democrats. So it might be too late, but only now, and hopefully there will be another fight. The article still stands, though, and I think illustrates how the bill failed with neither sound nor fury nor even a passing thought.)

 

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100 were killed when the Saudi bombed this funeral with US bombs

 

Do you believe the US President, Democrat or Republican, should have the unlimited power to wage unlimited war wherever he wants?

Do you believe that the United States should wage or abet war around the globe, without citizens or their representatives being able to have a say?

Do you think that the United States should be complicit in a genocidal war, even when we have essentially zero real interests in the outcome?

Does what your country does affect you? When blood is spilled in poor places, when families are pulverized into infinity by the sudden flash and pulsing thunder and tearing, renting metal, paid for with your money and launched in your name, does it matter? What responsibility do we have to the world, to ourselves, to history?

These are some of the questions being asked by a Joint Resolution introduced by Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee, saying that US support for Saudi Arabia’s murderous intervention in Yemen has never been authorized by Congress, and should therefore stop providing arms, tactical advice, and military support.

The legal heart of this question asks what it means to be at war in America in the 21st century. At its heart lies the tension between the War Powers declaration at our post-9/11 unlimited war on terror, which has created such an expansive and long-lasting view of war-making that it passes essentially unnoticed when the US participates in a non-Qaeda-based civil war on the Arabian peninsula.

Here’s the War Powers resolution of 1973.

The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

And here’s the Authorization of Military Force, passed right after September 11th:

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Now, in theory, these don’t contradict each other. Indeed, the AUMF was drawn from clause 3, the “national emergency”. (For the definitive history of the AUMF, you should read Greg Johnsen’s Buzzfeed piece on it.) You might notice, though, that it changes “national emergency” to language allowing for the President to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism” by “nations, organizations, or persons.”

Whooboy! That’s the issue, right there. Because: what does that mean? In practice, it has meant: whatever the President wants it to mean, and that has been consistent through multiple administrations, through Bush, Obama, and now Trump. And since there is nobody reading, and indeed, nobody alive or who has ever lived in any conceivable universe, who admires all three of those men, we see that this is an enormous problem.

(And if you doubt its bipartisan credentials, remember that it was essentially reauthorized just last September, even as everyone understood the Current Occupant was a reckless fucking idiot.)

It has been a bloody disaster in practice far more than in theory, of course. There will be a million different opinions about US involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and who knows how many other nations in the years since 9/11. But there is probably no one, except maybe Max Boot, who supports them all. But the President has been allowed to wage war and kill human beings in all these lands, with essentially zero oversight, because of those words.

So why is Yemen now an issue? It’s because Yemen is the apotheosis of this madness, a country whose war is only tangentially about terrorism, and in which our pointless involvement is directly abetting one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century.

Yemen’s History is Its Present

It’s hard, possibly impossible, to overstate the degree of horror in Yemen. A civil war has engulfed the country for 7 years, or 10 years, or 14 years, or 24 years, or maybe 28 years. It’s probably best to say that the country has had overlapping civil wars for decades now, and all that stress has come to a head in the last three years.

Those three years have seen a vicious Saudi “intervention” against the Houthis, a group that had been fighting the government of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2004, and has taken over control of large swaths of the country.

Saudi intervention has been a long-running war crime, a series of murderous bombing campaigns led by the US-blessed Mohammed bin Salman, wildly-corrupt future king and murderer of Yemen.  The Saudi campaign has pounded Yemen, deliberately targeting food and sanitation centers, destroying roads to cut off supplies, and blockading the ports.

 

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We’re supporting the side of a war who is doing this deliberately.

 

This has led, predictably, to mass famine and disease. Millions and millions of Yemenis face starvation, and it has seen the world’s worst cholera outbreak in decades. It seems to only get worse. It’s worth mentioning that the Houthis themselves have introduced a brutal rule, with executions, mass imprisonments, and vast corruption.

But don’t think the Saudis are intervening to protect human rights. Indeed, one of their bombing attacks, mostly done with US-supplied weapons, destroyed a prison where those innocents rounded up by the Houthis were living miserably. Freedom came at the bright and final light of an indifferent bomb.

So why are the Saudis intervening, and why does the US support them? It gets back, ostensibly, to Iran. Iran is supporting the Houthis, supplying arms, including missiles that can reach Riyadh. They are supporting their co-religionists in the Houthis, who are Shi’ites.

Because of this, we are told, the Saudis are fighting them. Yemen is a battleground in a larger civilizational war. And the US is deeply involved. The Trump administration, especially, has decided to go all in on the Saudi vs. Iran split, due both to a hatred of Iran, and a belief that helping the Saudis can lead to a regional peace deal which would make Trump look so damn good.

 

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Bragging and grinning about the weapons that lead to genocide

 

Except, it isn’t this neat. For one thing, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, Iran didn’t get involved in this war in the beginning. They were purported to, back in 2004, by Saleh himself, who wanted to turn the global community against the Houthis. And through the years, as everyone believed it, and as Iran became more invested in the regional frame of war, that they got more involved. After all, if everyone believes you are backing one side, that side better not lose.

But this isn’t based in the regional war; it is based in Yemen. The Houthi movement is part of general Zaydi discontent. Zaydi’s ran parts of north Yemen for 1000 years, before being overthrown in the 60s. In the ensuing civil war they were supported by the Saudis, who then thought monarchy trumped minor schisms. But they lost, and retreated to their ancestral safelands in the far north, near the Saudi border. Decades of neglect and minor oppression followed.

We then have to fast-forward a few decades. Yemen’s north and very secular, just-post-Communist south had united in 1990, but the marriage was a doomed one. When the bullets started flying in 1994, President Saleh used jihadis, just returned from Afghanistan and looking to spill more commie blood, as his troops. When he won, he let them essentially colonize the south, which led to years of discontent, boiling over into the Southern Movement in the late aughts (another of the overlapping civil wars).

That’s well-known, but what is less appreciated is that the jihadis were also allowed to build mosques and impose some thuggish demands on the Zaydis of the north. Now, a Saudi-based movement turned against the monarchists, and a younger generation (as well as one who had living memory of rule) chafed. War broke out in 2004, and lasted through six increasingly brutal rounds.

Now, if you’re reading this curious about terrorism, you might be wondering what the fuss is all about, or why I’m going so deep (although really surface level) into this. After all, the US has been fighting in Yemen for years. We’ve been battling al-Qaeda, the reconstituted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS there for years, to one extent or another. Why is it weird we are doing stuff there now?

Well, it is true that Yemen has seemed a direct extension of the AUMF, at least in its more expansive interpretations. AQAP, especially, has long been a powerful branch of Qaeda, and seems like it will outlast ISIS. And there have been counter-terrorism raids by the Trump admin, which wants to expand their scope. While I think that is madness and will only help AQAP, it still does seem to fit into the rough definition of the AUMF. So what’s the big whoop?

Well, regardless of what you think of the AUMF, our support for Saudi Arabia isn’t covered. As we saw, the very Sunni Islamists terrorists we’re fighting were supported by, trained by, and brought to life by Saudi Arabia. And yes, the Saudi government, or at least parts of it, is against the radicals now. But regardless: the Saudis are not in Yemen to fight al-Qaeda. We’re helping the Saudis bomb Qaeda’s enemies, the Shi’ite Houthis.

Even if you think the Houthis aren’t our allies, and they certainly are not, this is so far beyond the scale of the AUMF as to be ridiculous. This only has to do with Iran, the true sworn enemy of ISIS and AQ, who hate apostates more than infidels. When you combine that with the reality that the hideous destruction of the country can only boost Islamic militancy, you’ll see we’re 180 degrees from even the most hawkish reading of that short paragraph.

We Are the Nightmare We’ve Created

And yet, there is no outrage. There is no real debate. Sanders-Lee barely got any coverage, and its failure was completely ignored. That 10 Dems voted against it was met with outrage from several activist communities online, but I would be doubtful there will be much impact.

Granted, much of this can be tied to the daily cavalcade of tacky and obscene horrors committed by our slouchingly venal oaf of a President. It is hard for any story to get oxygen. But what has happened, what we’ve allowed to happen to ourselves, isn’t Trump. It’s bigger than that. It’s all-encompassing and generational. It’s where we’ve committed ourselves as a country, beyond party, beyond creed, and beyond reason.

We are so committed to an endless war, with endless permutations, that we greet its continuation with less than a shrug. We greet American complicity in what is nothing less than a genocide with indifference. We don’t even react when bombs we’ve created and sold on the cheap are dropped on hospitals, used to starve innocents and poison children. We can’t be bothered to care that our government is directly complicit in one of the true horrors of the 21st century.

We’ve also come to accept, bizarrely, that we can do this even in the face of abject failure. It’s not just that we’ve come to accept genocidal war. We’ve accepted it even though we know it does no good. We know that Iraq failed and made things worse. We know that Libya bred chaos and, in addition to the nightmares, created more safe havens for Islamists. We know that what’s happening in Yemen can’t end well, even if you only conceive of the world in the narrowest possible American-focused lenses.

So we’ve accepted total and complete war, and accepted we’ll lose. And we don’t care.

That’s terrifying and disquieting and teeth-gnashing and horrible on its own. But even if you accept all this, even if you think it is fine, as long as we are “fighting terrorism”, this particular intervention is pure madness. Because we’re essentially intervening on the side that is promoting terrorism, against the side that is supported by the #1 enemy of the combatants we’ve sworn to kill.

That isn’t to say Iran is the good guy. It’s just to say that being on the wrong, self-defeating side of this war isn’t a bug. It’s the whole goddamn point.

This is madness. And it is madness that we’ve accepted. It’s why Yemen may be the apotheosis of our post-9/11 state of myxomatosis-borne degeneracy, but, we recognize with frothing horror, might not end up being the worst.

Bibi as Trump; Trump As Bibi: How Netanyahu Is The Most Republican Politican In the World

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In 2015, facing yet another tough re-election campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu posted a short video on his Facebook page, warning his voters about a unique threat to their political system, their way of life, and indeed, the fate of their country: different voters.

“The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

This was in March of 2015, a few short months before Trump brought racism back into the mainstream of American politics, but it wasn’t like this sort of rhetoric was unfamiliar. Republicans in the United States have been using the same sort of rhetoric for years.

They’d been warning us of hordes of illegal immigrants voting, and massive conspiracies to have the wrong voters vote illegally. One of their conjuring words was “ACORN”, a voter registration service which they shut down after taking part in wild, absurdist conspiracies.

But to Republican supporters, alt-right loons, and out-and-out racists, it was an unmitigated Good Thing. After all, what ACORN was doing was registering the wrong people to vote. That’s echoed in Bibi’s message. It smacks of conspiracy, international meddling, some kind of nefarious scheme to overturn the rightful heir to the Israeli throne, when really it was just voter mobilization against a candidate who had made lives on the margin even more precarious.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Bibi Netanyahu has for years been not just celebrated by the Republican Party, but has essentially been a Republican. They use the same tactics, the same tone, and have shared beliefs.

Trump, though not a Netanyahu-like figure, is still the apotheosis of this. Through their rank insecurity, their demagogic bigotry, and most of all, their massive corruption, it is pretty clear that Trump and Bibi are cut from the same cloth.

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Frayed Alliance: Turkey, Russia, and Iran Circle Back to Familiar Patterns

 

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he This map helpfully has every area I want to talk about

During WWI, the Ottoman Empire’s main concern wasn’t the British or French, and certainly not the Americans, but the Russians. The Russian Empire had fought the Ottomans time and time again throughout the centuries, with at least 11 distinct wars over territory.

Most of these wars revolved around the Balkans and the Ukraine, territory both empires thought was rightfully theirs. Russia, when the wars began in the 1600s, was an upstart, unfurling its frozen limbs from St. Petersberg after a slow recovery from Mongol depredations.

But conflict wasn’t entirely in Slavic lands. The reason why the Turks were so worried about the Russians, of course, was that the Russians had pushed their empire into the Caucasus Mountains, on the Ottoman’s eastern flank. That region, flanked by the Black and Caspian seas, was of vital importance to the local players, which is why a fur-hat dominated European hereditary dynasty fought bloody and indecisive wars to tame it.

This should clear everything up

Some of these wars that Russia fought for the Caucasus were against the region’s other historic power, the Persians. As Russia moved into that area, they fought a series of wars against the Persians, being rebuffed in the first war in 1651, but slowly gaining ground as the empires traded strength. By 1828, Russia was in firm control of what had been Persian territory.

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See?

So during the Great War, the Turks got awfully worried about the Armenians, Orthodox Christians who had spent nearly 100 years as part of the Russian Empire, serving as a buffer or a fifth column inside Ottoman territory. And it was pretty clear with whom the Armenians sided.

So, in order to prevent the Russians from consolidating territory, they had gained from the Persians and using it as a launching ground for an eastern front, the Young Turks tried to eliminate the Armenians, whose crime was being in the middle of three great empires.

This is sort of a long way of saying: that’s where we are again today.

Post-West, A Region Falls Into Historical Patterns

I was thinking about this when I read an article on Eurasia Review, originally from the Tasnim News Agency. It is about the Iranian president criticizing Turkey for their incursions in Syria.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged that Turkey’s military assault on Afrin region in northwest Syria should come to an end, stressing that the presence of an armed force in another country needs the consent of that country’s government and people.

Now, you might be skeptical of Iranian concern for this, given that they have been operating in Syria for the duration of the war, being, along with Russia, the main supporters of Asad. Rouhani could probably scoff at charges of hypocrisy though, since his statement was couched by saying “needs the consent of…government and people.”

And he has the consent of the government, if you believe Syria really exists anymore, which I sort of don’t. The people? That’s a bit trickier. But the main point is that none of the major players are actually concerned with the wishes of a sovereign Syrian people. Instead, this is a regional battleground. For Iran, it is partly (largely) against the Sauds, but more and more, it is becoming the testing ground for old enmities against Russia and Turkey.

Last year I talked about these powers, and how they were maneuvering with and against each other. There was sort of an alliance between the three, but that, to me, was one of quick convenience, a way to fully and finally push out the US and the rest of the West. And that’s what happened: while we can still bomb Syria and supply Saudi Arabia to destroy Yemen, there isn’t much in the way of US influence.

Trump is so emotionally conflicted by this image

 

It is tempting to say that’s a void into these other powers are filling, but that’s not really accurate. Rather, the presence of the West is a recent imposition which has been removed. Your mileage may vary about Russia being the West or not, but there is no doubt it has been active in the region for nearly 500 years. While Russia has always cared about its east, and pushing into Europe, it is its south, with warm water, open ports, and route into the Indian Ocean, that has driven it.

Russia would love for Asad to win, and to be able to take advantage of a friendly country to establish warm water ports in the Mediterranean. Along with its Crimea grab, that would give it a foothold in the both that sea and the Black. And it needs those, because it is being outmaneuvered by both Iran and Turkey in the Caspian (which we talked about last year, my favorite to write and least-read article.)

But it isn’t like Turkey and Iran are buddies, either, as Rouhani’s criticism of Turkey shows. This is more Iran wanting Turkey to stay out of what it considers its zone, but Turkey wants to rid itself of meddlesome Kurds, and so is creating, in Afrin, a “buffer”.

If it happens to claim a chunk of Syria, well, what is Syria anyway?

That isn’t their only front either. They are also waging a war of influence in the Caucuses, with Azerbaijan beginning to turn toward Ankara, even though the historic Azeri heartland is split between that country and northern Iran.

And so that’s where we are. Once again, the Eurasian heartland is slowly being dominated by its historic powers, with Saudi upstartedness as essentially a rearguard action by the West. I have no idea who this will play out. But it is time to stop looking at the brief flicker of the 20th-century as a regional paradigm. For better or worse (but most likely neither, or both), it has been snuffed.

The new old reality is back.

 

 

 

A Reminder That Iran Protests Don’t Exist Because of or Despite the United States

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I am far from an expert on Iranian internal politics or its economy–though, if you’ve watched the shows or been on Twitter the last few days, that shouldn’t stop anybody from opining intently. Is this anti-regime? Pro-Trump? Anti-Trump? Does it show the nuclear deal was a success, or another capitulation? Should we investigate Hillary? What does Tucker Carlson think? Etc.

What is happening in Iran has quickly become, as these things do, internalized. It’s become about the United States, subsumed into our domestic debates and endless dining room squabbling. Who was right about Iran? Who was wrong?

This is frustrating, and not just because it is myopic, and frankly irritating as hell, but because it gets to the very heart of the problem: we don’t see the Iranians as actual people, but rather as pawns in our imperial power and our domestic maneuvering. And because of that, we’re almost doomed to make worse what could be a propitious moment in regional history.

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