"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Sunday, February 28, 2010

In the South

Robert Worth continues his work on Yemen in a Times article about the Southern Movement. (h/t: Wilken C) I think this is an important article, because as I've argued here and other places, I think the Southern Movement is potentially the most dangerous of all the three rebellions, with the best chance of tearing Yemen apart.  But the relatively minimal amounts of violence heretofore associated with it have relegated the Movement to a sidestage, mentioned with an off-handed shrug after al-Qaeda and the Huthi rebellion.

(A note: I am going to be saying "the south" and "the movement" here, but it is far more diverse and less unified than this might imply.  Also, geographically, "the south" is also the east, but I will use the political shorthand.)

I think Worth does an excellent job of painting the mood of the south, of how the movement went from a call for more economic rights and less oppression to an open secession movement.  I don't think that this was inevitable, but the ham-fisted reaction of the government, treating the south and is leaders with the same violent disregard as they did to the Huthi movement, reinforced their own loose caricature and helped to unify the opposition.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Is this unprecedented?  I don't mean the earthquake, of course, but the anticipation and coverage of the impending tsunami.  I suppose it is akin to a major hurricane, which we can track as it storms toward land.  But I really don't remember ever seeing anything like this- the knowledge of this wave, crashing blindly but with a seemingly malevolent intent across the ocean, and we seem to know nearly within the minute when it will hit. 

How is this going to be covered?  Will there be cameras there?  Are we going to see it coming, live?  I admit to a growing obsession with this.  How far away will it be before we can see it? 

And, if I am going to be completely honest about this, I am a little worried about a letdown.  I don't think I am alone here.  I imagine that the news people are really hoping for a dramatic cataclysm.

Anyone else?  Are you just as interested in how this is unfolding as I am?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Portrait of Salih

Haley Sweetland Edwards has a profile of President Salih in the Washington MonthlyIt is an excellent piece.  I will have a few comments on it later, probably.   But you should absolutely read it, right now.  What are you waiting for? 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blogging Lite

Apologes to the literally fives of readers- will not be blogging much today.  Here's a new column, though, for your amusement and edification. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Angry Libertarian Old Man Crank Comes Out

Nothing makes my blood boil more than people criticizing and pointing out the dangers of meat that comes in the shape of a tube.  This doesn't happen very often, which is good for my health (that is important, given my love of meat that comes in the shape of a tube).  My good pal and old fishing buddy Dan, over at Bleakonomy, has a post up about how the American Association of Pediatrics is now issuing choking warnings about hot dogs, and how much of a danger they pose given their deadly, deadly shape and uncontainable appeal to children.

Dan is gently disagreeing with the recommendations of his colleagues, whereas I think they are just insane.  Here is a terrifying money-quote.

“If you were to design the perfect plug for a child’s airway, you couldn’t do much better than a hot dog,” said Dr. Smith, also a Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “It will wedge itself in tightly and completely block the airway, causing the child to die within minutes because of lack of oxygen.”

Literally the only solution for this is to mandate the redesign of hot dogs.  Not having parents cut them up.  Redesign them, take away the deadly, deadly tube form. If I were you, which I am not, I would immediately invest in whatever company is going to manufacture a new bun for our brave new hot dog.  A kind of "flat bun" for the flat, processed meat made of mostly leftover animal parts.  We could even come up with a hip new name for it, like X-TremeDawg2K10, or, more accurately, a bologna sandwich.

I am not just ranting about this because I am drunk or because I love hot dogs.  I do, dearly.  Not as much as Christopher Walken, maybe, but I do. 

No, I hate this kind of stuff because it reduces us all to children in order to protect the children.  I have nothing against children- I was once a child myself, and many of my best friends are children.  But what groups like the AAP are doing here is finding a remote danger and thinking they have to take away all agency from the individual.   It combines the worst of a committee-think "do something!" mentality with the mawkish and condescending nanny complex that too many professionals have.

So, one might ask, how do I reconcile this with a desire for health car reform, which will put things in the hands of organizations that want a nanny-state.  Well, it is a matter of degree.  Hot dog makers have no interest in killing us.  Their profits go down when people die (or if there was a perception of danger).  Insurance companies, on the other hand, have a strong incentive to deny health care, because that maximizes their profits.  The free market isn't solving this problem; it is exacerbating it.  There isn't a body strong enough to control the market, and it refuses to police itself, so the government needs to step in to protect its citizens.  With hot dogs, though, it is a professional association inventing a problem with the desire to make infants out of us. 

Man, I wish I had a hot dog.

Dead Man Talking!

Qasim al-Raymi, who was once briefly, happily, but mistakenly described as "the late Qasim al-Raymi", is once again threatening America.

"Today, you have attacked us in the middle of our household, so wait for what will befall you in the middle of yours ... We will blow up the earth from beneath your feet," Qasim al-Raymi, the wing's military commander, said in an article posted earlier this month on a website used by Islamist militants.

As Greg Johnsen has pointed out, AQAP has a long history of making threats when the feel they are ready to back them up, and are able to make reality match their rhetoric.  I have a feeling that this isn't the case here, as they have been harassed for the last month-plus.  This might be a case of wanting to stay relevant.

But that clearly should not be a call for relief- as we've noted, this is a group that is patient and stays away from reckless showmanship and empty bluster.  I don't think they are going to be able to blow up the earth from beneath our feet.  But one saw the hysteria and partisan wrangling that met the last, failed attack.  A successful one, even if limited in scope, will drive us further down a scary road.  It is wishful thinking to imagine they aren't aware of the reactions they are able to provoke.

Electricity in Yemen

Always Judged Guilty friend Haley Sweetland Edwards has an article in the GlobalPost about chronic electrical shortages in Yemen.   I know what you're thinking. You're thinking- hey!  I want to read about things blowing up, preferably the bad guys.  Well, relax.  First off, she* is a great writer, so it is very readable.  Second, persistent social annoyances like this are just as important, if not (in the long run) more important than the immediate security threats.   Here is the nut of it.

For Ali and many other small business owners, Yemen’s severe and worsening electricity shortage is more than just an inconvenience. It’s a financial catastrophe.
The cause of the electricity shortage is simple: Yemen’s rapidly expanding population, combined with the explosive growth of Yemeni cities thanks to internal migration, has outstripped the capacity of the nation’s decades-old diesel and steam power plants. Sana'a, the nation’s capital, is growing by a staggering 8 percent per year — making it one of the fastest growing cities in the world — yet the capital region draws power from virtually the same sources it did 20 years ago.

This helps to flesh out a portrait of a society in deep trouble, if not outright disrepair.  It is one of those things that seems small, certainly compared to the towering problems of war and water, but helps to add to the persistent sense that things are not working out.  It isn't entirely pessimistic, as the article talks about attempts to rebuild or expand the grid, though those attempts are being hindered by tribesmen.  (Basically, the tribes want concessions for the grid running through their land.  This is not uncommon in Yemen, but growing center-tribes distrust might throw up more obstacles).  Anyway, it is a good article, and I would be doing you injustice by summarizing.  Read it. 

* I got it right this time

Monday, February 22, 2010

War and Peace in Sa'ada

Nasser Arrabyee reports that the peace treaty is being implemented, slowly but surely. The main sticking point is the deployment of Yemeni soldiers along the Saudi border, a move resented by the rebels but demanded by the Kingdom. And, again, their blisteringly stupid involvement means that they have a disproportionately large voice at the negotiating table. But overall this is clearly the best news to come out of the north in a long time. Nasser also has a much more sobering piece, about the children of the war, caught up in an atavistic battle. 187 killed, 89000 displaced, hundreds of thousands denied education, and hundreds recruited to fight, on both sides (on the government side, it was child soldiers recruited by the loyal tribes- children were not directly fighting for the government. This is a distinction without a difference when it comes down to it, but I wanted to be clear). These dry numbers, born of violence, provide a peek into the problems of peace. The blame will fall, fairly or not, at the feet of the Salih and his army. And these are the people whose trust Salih needs to get to keep the country from continuing to deteriorate. This was the biggest strategic flaw of Operation Scorched Earth- while Salih could break the rebels, he probably only widened the gap between the tribesmen and his government.

Hitchens on Sports

Christopher Hitchens has a really, really aggravating, snide and condescending article on why sports are dumb.  I know- who knew he would ever be condescending.   I've been angry at it all weekend, and have been stewing.  It is fisked in its entirety below the jump.   It is very, very long, but don't let that intimidate you.  Anger can be a good thing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

El-Baradei in Cairo

Our friends at The Majlis have a post about the return to Cairo of young Egypt's newest political hero, former IAEA head Mohammed el-Baradei.  El-Baradei has announced that, given a free and fair election, he plans to run for President in 2011.  The last Presidential elections in Egpyt were marred irrevocable by intimidation and arrest, with Putin-style tactics.  These were also the first real Presidential elections, as before Hosni Mubarak was subject to a referendum on whether or not he should keep his job (correct answer: yes).

This will be interesting.  El-Baradei has a good reputation in Egypt as someone who speaks truth to power.  He also has international renown, so it will be considerably more difficult for Mubarak to get away with silencing him (going back to the Russian analogy well: think how Putin is unable to arrest Garry Kasparov, only in this case imagine Kasparov has a decent following).

But setting aside all scenarios where the game is rigged for Hosni, or (more likely) his son Gamal, and el-Baradei actually wins.  Will he be able to do anything?  The bureaucracy is just as sticky and difficult as it always has been, and the ability of a reformer to cut through that might be severely limited.  The stifling nature of the system is just as bad today as it is presented in Tawfik al-Hakim's Maze of Justice (a wonderful darkly comic novel). But who knows?  Maybe something fresh can help shake the dust of the stagnant, tired Mubarak years, with their gray emergency-rule coat.   And if people can be excited about a democrat, we might not have to fear the Mubarak standard of "if not for me, the Brotherhood".

But, hell, I don't know.  It is Friday, and I am optimistic.  One thing we know for sure, though: if this run happens, it will be interesting to see how the right wing noise-machine, who so vilified al-Baradei for not saying there were WMDs in Iraq, deals with this.  He is challenging an Arab autocrat...but we don't like him for 2003.  I for one look forward to the contortions. 


One of the nice things about having a blog is that people send you their own blog, and they are generally interesting.  No one ever sends me blogs with pictures of cats or anything, which is mostly nice.  I mean, if you want to, that is cool- I like cats.  Not a lot, but I feel as if I am getting off topic here.

Anyway, here is a blog about Pakistan, written from a Pakistani perspective.  There are several writers, full of passion but without being ideologues.  It is very good, and the comment section is lively.  So go there.

If you want a listing of blogs about cats go here.

More Unrest in the South

An ambush today in the south killed two government workers, including "the director of a criminal investigations unit".  The article blames southern separatists, but does not go into further detail.  I would like to say that until it is proven, one should be a little of assigning blame.   It is not beyond the pale that this is connected to the Southern Movement (the growing movement agitating for independence), but it is not conclusive.

Regardless, this will help the further tensions.  The south and San'a are in a cycle of mutual retribution and accusation, with sporadic violence.  I personally feel that they are nearly, if not already, past the point of no return.  There is zero trust between the two sides, and each act of aggression or revenge- and once you are in this cycle, the two are indistinguishable- heightens that distrust.

The only way that both sides can get what they want is for the South to have increased autonomy, including control over its economy, but while still providing the government with the funds they need to maintain some order and power.  If there can be a mutually wary peace, time can be bought to deal with other problems, and trust can build.  But if there is war, neither side wins.  I deal with this in some more detail in a forthcoming article, and I will let you know when it comes out.

New Yoker On Qat

Good article by Joshua Hersh, though I might be biased to anything that quotes me, even with such a sarcastic, snark-laden bit.   Here's Hersh's close.

Eventually, my taxi arrived at the journalist’s house, and he offered me some qat. Friedman wrote that he had tried qat—he stopped chewing after fifteen minutes, he said—and I wasn’t going to let him out-Yemen me. Breaking off the small, soft leaves, I chewed on them, three or four at a time. No major revelations, although my notes got a little sloppy, then ceased altogether. Later I was told that it sometimes takes a few sessions before you really “get it.” I’ll have to give it another go.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


I won't always do this, but I am happy about this week's column, which has nothing to do with Yemen.  Click on it if you want to read it- it is about terrorism trials.  I am just excited that it provoked this comment.

O’Neill looks about as happy to be alive as Christopher Hitchens. They’re probably soulmates…

To be fair, a friend's mom did say I looked "boozy", which, in a great historical irony, I wasn't- even though the picture was taken after 5:00! 



Want to say thanks to my good friend Dr. Dan for the shoutout at his blog.  Bleakonomy is linked on the side of this site, and you should check it out.  The topics on there are varied, and Dr Dan and friends are talented, interesting and funny writers.  There are always good debates about medical issues, including an ongoing fascinating one on obesity and health.  You will not find that here, because I am not smart enough.  So go there.  Do it now!

Huthi Truce Holding?

Tensely.  Will it?  Well, we've been down this road before, about five times, but there are different elements in play this time.  Here's a few reasons why it might, and a few reasons why it might not.  Let's bullet-point this shit.

  • Huthis are largely defeated militarily.  Salih's overwhelming assault- Operation Scorched Earth- was designed to incapacitate the Huthis so that he could deal with the country's other problems.  The intent was to break them.  The Saudis, with their relatively powerful military, aided in that.  Enormous human rights violations aside, this was successful.  The other "peace treaties" ended without political solutions and with the Huthis still able to fight.  This operation seems to have avoided the latter mistake.  
  • The involvement of the West.  To its credit, the west seems to have recognized that merely beating al-Qaeda right now will not be enough to save Yemen, and to turn it away from being a safe haven for terrorism.   We also seem determined to not allow Salih to use our money to destroy his enemies.  We'll see if that works in practice, but in theory we are pressuring for a political solution.  For once, the West's interest in Yemen is not just focused on al-Qaeda. 
  • Salih's intelligence.  The President needs the money to keep coming in to rebuild his patronage network, the single most important element to keeping him in power all these years.  The West is not excited about funding civil wars.  I think Salih knows that to stay in our already wary graces, he needs to play ball.  In a perfect world, he could get our money and crush his enemies.  Luckily, we are not in that world. 
And a few reasons why it won't.

  • Our rhetoric doesn't always match reality.  It's been close to two months since America and allies really began to look at Yemen, and just now is the peace-treaty taking hold.  There has been pressure, but it seems more of a public suggestion type of pressure.  There certainly has been closed-door goading, but the money has still been flowing.  Salih knows that for all our talk, and even intentions, the need to destroy al-Qaeda in the short-term is overwhelming politically. 
  • The narrative has shifted.  Inasmuch as the West paid attention to the Huthi conflict before, the government was always painted as the bad guy, mostly because of how the indiscriminate bombing caused heavy civilian casualties and an IDP crisis.  It was a pretty accurate painting.  Now it seems as if the story has become one of, at least, equal antagonists.  You still hear the misleading "Shi'ite rebellion" story, which no one in America likes to hear.  So while we don't want Salih to kill everyone, we also see the war as a struggle against a government we need, and not for a specific grievance.  Salih will be able to use that to keep money coming in, and paint his terms in a more favorable light.  This won't help with a long-term political solution.
  • Neither will bombing the hell out of people.  Scorched Earth was a military success, but it is hard to entice people whose villages you destroyed back into the warm bosom of the state.  Trust is a long, long way off. 
  • The Kingdom wants a piece.  It was lunacy for Saudi Arabia to get involved.  I understand that national pride might have been in play, a little, but not only did it get involved in an intractable foreign conflict, now it has its hands in on the difficult peace treaty.  The overbearing neighbor now feels it has to be at the bargaining table, which will throw a monkey wrench into everything.   Slaking Saudi pride is no mean feat. 

So, it looks like the final is 4-3, against this holding.  But clearly these aren't all weighted equal, and I am sure there are more arguments on either side.  But right now I feel these are some of the elements at play.  Readers are invited to tell me why I am wrong, or to add to either side, in the comments. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The history of mail

Fascinating article in History Today about the history of the English post office.  I know it sounds dry, but it captures just what communication meant to people, and how it changed their lives.  There are great anecdotes about heartsick lovers and worried parents desperately waiting for the next post.  Before that, one might worry, but there was no way of knowing, so it would be pushed to the side a little bit.  There are some interesting echoes to today, where if you don't receive a response email within 15 minutes you start to pace sweatily around the room.  The ability to communicate quicker really screws with our ability to handle delays, and greatly alters our relationships with people.  This is old hat, of course, but it is thrilling to read about how it started.

The article also goes into how private companies formed, and the intrigue of government bodies.  For a Pynchon fan, it is impossible to read segments like this...

Increased literacy, trade and an interest in news soon led merchants and the public to demand access to the post. But it wasn’t until 1635 that a London merchant Thomas Witherings (d.1651) offered a proposal to organise the first postal system for public use.A Royal Proclamation for the ‘settling of the Letter-Office of England and Scotland’ gave Witherings the authority to establish fixed, regular posts. Each post town had its own mail bag to and from London,while foot posts carried letters further on. The central London office at Bishopsgate co-ordinated mail on six main roads, charging 2d a letter for up to 80 miles.

After foundering during the Civil War, Witherings’ plan was re-instated in 1657 and posts set up by rival entrepreneurs were shut down.After the Restoration in 1660 Charles II intensified intelligence activities on post roads that passed through London. Secretaries of State were given the right to open letters. It was rumoured that state employees could take impressions of seals, imitate writing perfectly and copy a letter in a minute by pressing damp tissue paper over the ink.At the same time, the Six Clerks of the Road in London were informally allowed to frank newspapers to local postmasters, who provided drink, gossip and horses, as well as news. 

...without thinking about Tristero.

Baradar reaction

Steve Coll thinks that this is very good news.  Money quote.

If, through a combination of pressure and enticement, Pakistan and the United States can draw sections of the Taliban into peaceful negotiations, while incarcerating those who refuse to participate, it will produce a sweeping change in the war. With enough momentum, such a strategy would also increase the incentives for Pakistan and Taliban elements to betray Al Qaeda’s top leaders. It’s been a while since there has been unadulterated good news out of Pakistan. Today there is.

Glenn Beck thinks that we should shoot him in the head, meanwhile.   

"But with these people that are currently running our country, they'll make the troops the bad guys and everything else...shoot him in the head before we all of a sudden release him into, what, primary schools in New York City? What are we gonna do with this guy?"

I guess I hadn't actually thought of that possibility.  I'm glad that I don't have any kids in New York (or anywhere, I guess)- I'd hate for them to go to school with a Taliban leader!   I don't know.  I kind of feel like there is a middle ground between summary execution and outright release.

See, Coll thinks this is good, but Beck doesn't think anything good can come of it, thanks to Obama.  I'm gonna spend some time thinking about which foreign policy expert I trust more, and I'll get back to you.

Huthi Analysis

Nasser Arrabyee has an excellent look at the cease-fire in the north: who gets what, who needs what, and what the sticking points are.  Not surprisingly, Saudi interference is making this even more difficult (for example, they want the border areas to be flooded with Yemeni soldiers; one wonders what that will do to decrease tension).  Read the whole thing.  It is excellent, as his reporting consistently is.

British involvement in the Huthi Rebellion???

According to Iran, anyway. 

This is obviously silly.  Britain and the west gain no benefit from the disintegration of Yemen; the opposite is true.  And the Iranians don't even try to give an explanation, other than the assumption that this is something the English would try to do.

But it isn't without meaning.  England doesn't have a shiny reputation in the Middle East.  And while it is tempting to go all Orientalist here, and say something like "to the native, grudges last through generations" while lighting my pipe and taking a bite out of an albino leopard, it isn't necessary.  There is living memory of Western interference.   In America, we tend to have shortened historical memory, and so we dismiss the effects of colonialism, but that is a bit hypocritical.  We are still fighting Vietnam and the culture wars of the 60s.  Or, to put it another way, if you told an American in the 1830s that the King was behind the economic collapse, wouldn't they be inclined toward hearing you out?

There is a larger issue at play here, and it is one of competing narratives.  Iran is basically being accused by everyone of interfering in everything, of spreading its Islamist influence everywhere.  And these accusations are rooted firmly in reality, of course.  With a roiling population tired of oppression and tired of the foreign interventionism needed to sustain military rule, it helps the ruling party to be able to say "hey- it isn't us!"  I would imagine that this release has little to do with Yemen  qua Yemen, and more to do with trying to change the larger story.

I would be interested to learn from people on the ground in Yemen their feelings on how something like this might play.  My guess is that a young population, while not immune to these stories, has a far deeper knowledge and more immediate memory of their own government's failings, without needing to resort to outsiders.  But then I think the White Sox are going to win the World Series every year, so my judgment might be questionable.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Friedman Update

A Yemen-based reader, anonymously offering this perfect reaction to the Friedman post.

Nor did I expect to find civil society organizations here staffed with young American volunteers — and, in the case of The Yemen Observer, an English-language newspaper, a whole newsroom full of them. All I could do was look around at these American college students and wonder: “Do your parents know you’re here?” They just laughed.

as one of the "young college students" that was in the room with him at the yemen observer office (i am youngish, not a college student, none of us are currently in school...) i thought you might like to know that the anecdote you mentioned abover NEVER HAPPENED. he never asked us if our parents knew we were in yemen...we never laughed.

Now, I suppose it is possible that Friedman asked that question to other civil society organizations, but if that is the case then this is some seriously bad wording.  I know when I read it I was picturing the Observer offices.

This tangentially reminds me of one of my favorite Friedman anecdotes.  I was studying at the American University of Cairo and he came there to give a talk about globalization and his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.   He was talking about how everything is modern and new and how global Cairo is, and to prove his point he mentioned how he had just rode the train down from Alexandria and all he could hear was the constant buzzing of cell phones.

Well, thought I, I had also ridden that train*, and I didn't hear any cell phones.  But then, I wasn't in first class or anything.  There were chickens on the train.  And I am not trying to present myself as a rugged traveler or anything like that- just one on a modest budget.  To me that perfectly captured Friedman's problems- taking a small subset that you experience and extrapolating it to create a model of the whole.  Hell, he wrote an entire book based on an off-hand remark he heard from a tech guy in India.

I won't focus too much on Friedman here.  By now he is pretty much fish in a barrel.  But I appreciate the post, and the chance to reminisce.

*I want to say I was on the same train on the same day, but it has been a decade** now, and I really can't say for certain.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Taliban Leader Captured

This seems like good news to me.  I think after the last nine years we are all a little skeptical when the government announces that a "Number 2 terrorist leader" has been captured/killed.  There has been a running joke about the amount of Number 2 guys al-Qaeda has lost.  It was clearly the most dangerous position in the world.  (And the current admin hasn't always avoided playing fast and loose with this formula.)  But my initial reaction to that is to note how the Taliban is a government, half-shadow and half-realized, and before a fully-functioning one (more or less, anyway).  They have a more regimented hierarchy than the far more fluid al-Qaeda.   Al-Qaeda has leadrrs of course, and rankings, but a government is considerably more organized, even one as medieval as the Taliban.  I will track this and find out what people who are smarter and have more specific knowledge than me have to say, but right now I am going to label this as good news (tentative).

Bayh for POTUS?

A TPM reader makes the case.  Marshall doesn't buy it, and really neither do I.  If he were to be planning to do so, I don't think he would wait until 2016.  If Bayh were planning to wait until 2016, he wouldn't essentially drop out for the next 6 years. That would be a crazy and unworkable plan.  I also don't think he is worried about losing his seat this year- beside his money and his rep, the name "Bayh" is still golden in Indiana.  The only cynical explanation is that he is planning to mount a centrist, Democratic populist insurgency against Obama in the primaries in 2012.  But I really don't see that happening either- Bayh is a decent guy, and also a smart one.  The power of the incumbency can crush a primary challenger.  Hell,  Ted Kennedy couldn't even beat Jimmy Carter.   Unless the economy tanks to 1930s level and we have a series of devastating terrorist attacks, Obama will not be challenged by his own party- and if that happens, best of luck beating Hillary Clinton.

I think the actual case to be made for his dropping out is that he realizes he might not ever be President, and is tired of the Senate.   Political reporters want him to be a national figure in the same way they want Tim Pawlenty to be one- it fits their idea that Americans will always get jazzed by bland white guys from dreary midwest states.  In some ways, this is giving respect to voters, assuming that they don't need their candidates to have fire and, well, noticeable human emotions.  But it is also pretty condescending to think that the ideal generic candidate dreamed up by columnists is somehow palatable to real people.  It shows a decidedly limited worldview.   In reality, studies show that 93% of registered voters fall asleep before even getting to the second syllable in "Pawlenty".  I might have made that up, but I would bet it is pretty accurate.

Oil Revenue

The 2009 numbers are out, and, like in most sectors in the world, they do not look good.  Oil revenue in Yemen dropped 55% last year.  While this is clearly bad, it can be seen as a correction from inflated highs in 2008. 

From Somalia to Yemen

Haley Sweetland Edwards, he of old Waq al-Waq friend The Sana'a Bureau, has a LATimes article about the plight of Somali refugees on their horrific trek to Yemen.  Wrenching reading, top-notch writing.  Here's a little sample, but read the whole thing.

When the coastal patrol finds the bodies of refugees, it transports them to one of three UNHCR-run cemeteries in southern Yemen, which buried more than 315 last year. Ahmed Haj, who helps run Al Hamra, the UNHCR cemetery in Mayfa Hagar, said they had buried 81 people since it opened in September.

"Not everyone gets their own grave," he said, pacing a graveyard the size of a football field a few hundred feet from the shore. Each grave was marked by a blue number on a white post pounded into the ground. The sour smell of decomposing flesh hung in the air.

"They think they are coming to paradise, and this is their destination," Saleh said. "They come from one thing to a worse thing. It is hell."


Regarding Haley: "He" should read "she".  Mea culpa, Haley. 

Huthis hand over Saudi soldier

In the middle of a tense and imperfect truce, the Huthis have returned one out of five Saudi soldiers they have been holding hostage, following an ultimatum by the kingdom.  One hopes that the other four are still alive.  I would have to think that if they are the Huthi reluctance to release the rest of them stems from the need to still have a card in their hands.   That is what makes this such a difficult time- the Huthis don't have much to play with, but if they are too reluctant to act it will no longer matter, and we'll have violence again.  We have atmosphere where there is absolutely no trust between any of the players- even San'a and Riyadh, ostensible allies against the rebels, have a long history of disdain.  Don't hold your breath waiting for a good outcome here.


Interesting article about economic possibilities in Yemen's south today, particularly Aden and its port.   The beginning of the article focuses on an Indian entrepreneur named Ravinder Singh, who is amazed at the "manpower with the commitment of Yemenis."   This is nice, if a little condescending (people have to work hard to exist in a country with such meager resources).  But generosity of spirit, or basic decency, makes me assume that he was gearing his comments to a richer outside world of potential investors, who can sometimes see poverty as being the result of sloth.   The article is pretty optimistic, or at least what passes for optimism in Yemen these days.  It paints a different picture- that is, one of people wanting to work and make a life and not rushing off to put bombs in their underwear, and for that it is worth reading.

A few quick thoughts.  Aden is incredibly important to any economic future Yemen might have.  It was once one of the busiest ports in the world, just behind London, and is located in an impossibly great trade route.  It is easy to discount this, as Yemen is lumped in with "the Middle East", and is therefore assigned its own set of assumed properties: barren, isolated- near Syria, maybe?  But historically it is far more connected with the Horn of Africa and with India than, say, the Levant.  There is a reason the British wanted to colonize it- Aden is a great stop between the Suez and India.   If the port can be rebuilt and secured, it could once again become a major cash cow for Yemen (being secured is most important- bombings of the Cole and the Limburgh drove insurance rates to an unsustainable level).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Friedman + Yemen = Christmas in February

Some years ago, a friend of mine and I ran a site dedicated to fisking the columnists at the New York Times.  Our ethos was: why should such a great paper have such mediocre, boring, and lazy writers, on the most valuable page of editorial real estate in the world?   Also, we wanted to swear a lot.   More recently, of course, I was doing Waq al-Waq, a far more serious look specifically at Yemen.  So imagine my delight when today, Thomas Friedman, he of the mustache that launched a thousand ships, popped up in San'a.   I am almost dizzy with snarky lust.   It's like I get two Super Bowls today.

So I don't know if this is going to be more about Yemen or Friedman or what.   For the record, most of this is always in sadness rather than anger.  I like Friedman, think he is a good guy, and rarely outright disagree with him.  But there is no one who resorts more quickly or lazily into hacky tropes and surface-level investigations.  It is maddening.

OK, ready?

Yemen’s former prime minister, Abdul Karim al-Iryani, got right to the point when I arrived at his Sana home for dinner: “So, Thomas, did it take Abdulmutallab to finally get you here?”

 Bam!  Right off the bat we get my least-favorite Friedmanism- the "See Who I Talk To?"  It is as if this Pulitzer Prize winning, rich, best-selling author always has to remind us that he is famous and important and people know his name and have him over for dinner.  However, I do like that he is using that as a frame for talking about his shortcomings in Yemen.  So this is a wash, I guess.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Propaganda in the Huthi Rebellion

Nasser Arrabyee reports that the governor of the Sa'ada province is claiming that the Huthi rebels are responsible for 1500 civilian deaths in the latest round of fighting.  Needless to say, this number is not verifiable.  And, coldly, it doesn't matter if it is true.  What matters is that it is being said.  From a human side, one is too many, but in a civil war the truth is just another battleground.

What the government wants to do is to further shift the perception of the war both to his people and to the outside.  Before the Christmas bomber and the intense focus on Yemen, reports of the war largely and correctly painted the government as the brute, with its carpet bombing and refusal to let outsiders observe what was happening.  But since the new year, and with the focus on AQAP, there has been a slight shift, where the Huthis are something that need to be dealt with in order to stop terrorists.  There is still pressure for negotiation, but I think president Salih has seen an opening.

This isn't the first time, of course, that official statements have tried to highlight the ruthless iniquities of the rebels- they have been portrayed as puppets of Iran and bloodthirsty nation-wreckers, violent and atavistic remnants of a cruel Imam.   And there is some truth there- neither side has clean hands.

But unless they are "our" rebels- and Shi'ite enemies of an ostensible ally clearly are not- the term "rebellion" will always be a loaded one.  Salih recognizes this, and if he can help to paint the picture when people are finally paying attention, then it will make it easier for him to get what he wants.

Again, the government might not be wrong.  But what this highlights is the need for the Friends of Yemen, the Facebook-echoing international working group, to pressure the government to let the world take full account of what is happening in that northern fastness.  That is the only way to make the dead more than a number to be kicked around by equally relentless protagonists.


Hello to anyone who clicked on over here from Waq al-Waq.   This is my new blog, and I hope you'll check it out and make yourself at home.  I want to start by thanking everyone who made Waq al-Waq such an exciting, vibrant and rewarding place.  You guys challenged us and focused our thinking.  I'll miss it deeply, but I hope this can fill the void.  This is a much broader forum, which will allow me to go from being a Yemen-only "expert" to the more natural ground of a Yemen-obsessed dilettante.  Also there will probably be more swearing. There will still be many, many Yemen posts, perhaps even the majority.  And of course, Greg has a standing invitation to post his unsurpassed expertise whenever the mood strikes.

But I hope you'll give this a chance, and maybe tell your friends and neighbors.  If you are interested in national or international politics, literature, Chicago or science you might find something you like as we move forward.  The comments are always open, and it is my goal to make this a place where you can find a discussion on something that may interest you.  If I can get somewhere near the always astonishingly high-level of comments we had at the old place, I'll be happy.

Thanks for checking it out, and I hope to see you around.


A Quick Look At The Illinois Senate Race

The idea of winning the Senate seat that used to be President Obama's is a tremor-inducing possibility for the Republican Party.  In addition to further changing the arithmetic of the Senate, the symbolic victory would be enormous- it would be trumpeted to prove that the country no longer cares for Obama and his policies, if his party can't even win in his own state.

This is a good story, and probably contains some truth, but it is far from being the whole picture.  Politics, as always, are local.  I think one needs to look more closely at the internal dynamics of a race before painting a broad picture.  The mood of the nation is only really reflected, I think, in Presidential elections or when either party gains a huge amount of seats (which might happen this November).  So let's take a peek at what is going on in Illinois.

The race is going to be between Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.  Kirk handily won his primary; Giannoulias barely edged his reform-touting opponent, David Hoffman (hereafter I am going to refer to Giannoulias as Alexi.  This isn't me being friendly or name-droppy, but because that is how he is referred to and because it is much easier to type).

Smart money is on Kirk.  He is a 5th-term Congressman and a reservist who recently went in that capacity to Afghanistan.  Tough story to beat.  Contrast that with 33-yr-old Alexi, currently the state's Treasurer.  Our financial woes aren't all his fault, but that is still a tough resume.  Alexi has also served overseas, but as a basketball player.  Additionally, his family bank is under ethics reviews, and he can be connected- but not in an illegal way- to the Blagojevich/Rezko axis of shadiness.  He is a smart man, strikes many as decent, and a good campaigner.   But I doubt that will be enough to overcome Blago/Burris/Rezko/Daley etc in a Republican year.

Still- I would not take this as a sign of a huge rightward shift in Illinois.  We've always been a state that has had both Republican and Democratic governors (both of whom end up in jail), and conditions are right for Kirk.  Additionally, Kirk is not a dogmatist.  He is someone who has always been respected by liberals such as myself, and his tenous and opportunistic overtures toward the Tea Party types have sounded false.  He was even labeled a RINO.   Yet he won the nomination handily.

So we'll see- if he campaigns as a psuedo-populist winger, all fire and anger with no ideas other than "no!" I think he might end up losing.  It would be a Romney-esque farce, and I don't think his heart would be in it.  It would also be rejected. Chicago Dems will not go down without a fight, and I think Alexi may surprise some people.  The way he runs his campaign and its outcomes will say far more about the state than simply reading a victory as a repudiation of Obama.

 In closing, I want to give a really quick demonstration on: How Not to Use Numbers Honestly.  In a column, Michael Reagan wants to demonstrate how well things are going for Kirk.  "Kirk, who has ridden the wave of Conservative voter enthusiasm, easily won his primary by 37 points. His general election opponent, Democrat Giannoulias, struggled to find the same level of enthusiasm within his party ranks and merely earned the nomination by 5 percent of the vote. And it is now estimated that Kirk holds a powerful 3-to-1 advantage in cash on hand."  The cash thing is easily explained by Kirk being the only viable Republican.  The percentage thing is absurd, of course- there were over 100,000 more ballots cast on the Democratic side.  If you win 2-1 and I win 100-99, is there really more enthusiasm for you?   It is true that there was more relative excitement for Kirk in the GOP, but that was partly because the Dems had two viable candidates.  As I said, my money is on Kirk, but not for those straw-clutching reasons.

The Israeli Right

My friend Brett in Israel has tipped me off to a couple of fascinating articles that document the language mechanisms and perhaps the mentality of the extreme right in Israel, an issue that is troubling both for the sake of peace and for the future of a decent, modern, democratic ally.

The first is a disturbing Harretz commentary by Bradley Burston.  In it, he tackles some of the more hideous assaults on law and decency that are becoming more commonplace- flouting court orders, campagins against human rights groups, increasing gender segregation, etc.  His conclusion is that the Israeli right is afraid of peace, and wants only to create the "world's last remaining legally mandated Jewish ghetto."   I think that language might be hyperbolic and create a few extreme ahistorical symmetries for the sake of emotional punch, but I understand the sentiment. 

The picture becomes a little more clear when reading the next article in Coteret, titled (even more provocatively) "Israeli McCarthyism, Circa 2010".   Author Hagai El-Ad quotes Israeli parlimentarians using the language of treason and violence against fellow Israelis who don't particularly like their country's actions in Operation Cast Lead.   Here are a couple of choice samples (all from article, with El-Ad's comments)

MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi – New National Religious Party) begun with a short introduction to the concept of treason: “My friends the members of the Knesset. Treason was defined as a crime so to prevent soldiers and civilians from providing ammunition to the enemy to destroy Israel. That’s treason…

MK Danny Danon (Likud) presented the concept of truth: “The question is very simple and we will know the answer within a few months. If these organizations did not give false information to the Goldstone Report – then all the fuss is for nothing. I’d be wasting precious time of the Israeli Knesset. But if they indeed passed false information to Israel’s enemies – if they fed them false data – we need to say: enough.”
This suggests the following philosophical question: what is a worse crime – feeding one’s enemies with false data, or with real one? Or, putting the sarcasm aside for a moment: how is MK Danon going to find out if the questions raised with regard to the IDF’s conduct during Cast Lead are true or false, if there won’t be any credible investigation into Cast Lead?

This is indeed scary stuff, but I am of mixed minds about it.  No: let me clarify a bit.  It is frightening and stomach-turning and awful.  What I am ambivalent about is its long-term ramifications.

The language will strike almost any American as the kind of stuff we hear from the American right- the with us or against us mentality, the Michelle Bachmann overdrive to root out traitors, the idea of the last decade that dissent equaled treason (funny how that has disappeared).   And that, weirdly, is why I am not too terribly worried about Israel- countries do go through periods of historical insanity.  It may seem like we are still in one, but I think it is petering out, even if it is not yet dead.  So I feel to take a moment of madness and assume it will destroy a place might be over-reaching, and playing into the idea we have now that every day is the most important one.

But this isn't a call for complacency, either.  I am not totally sold on the above.  Israel is in a strange spot right now- the heroic generation is all but gone, and the new leaders seem to want to simultaneously move forward but also feel the need to show how tough they are.  The younger generation doesn't seem to want to do much with politics or the wearying wars, but to innovate and live their lives.  Into this vacuum steps the worst actors.   Israel is also young and buffeted with enemies.  If America could lose its bearings because of one (obviously enormous, but not catyclismic) strike, a country like Israel, always on the edge of attack, can be more easily pushed over.

However, there have been signs of counter-protests.  A decent and liberal people can only be pushed so far.  But for now, this is a scary trend.  Silly or malicious people in the 2000s liked to say that the neo-cons cared more for Israel than America.  This was nonsense, but it seems what the neo-cons managed to do was provide a vicious template for their Israeli counterparts.