"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Friday, April 23, 2010

You shot who in the whatnow?

On of the most pernicious phrases in Middle East analytical gasbaggery is "over there, the enemy of my enemy is my friend."   This conjures up the images of sleazy, dusky men with hooked blades glittering in the moonlight, whispering in smoky rooms, and implies a lack of trustworthiness.  The person who says it generally does so with utmost confidence, as if the tiresome cliche they are repeating came straight from the fountain of previously-unrevealed truth.   I personally can't hear this without imagining the speaker in reflecting aviator shades and speaking with the froggy arrogance of Tom Clancy, but maybe that is a character fault of my own.   I think what bugs me the most about the phrase is that it suggests a fundamental and almost alien indecency.  I am no great fan of Arab politics, but, while the stakes generally have a more immediate life-and-death urgency, the general principles are not particularly different than anywhere else.  And, like anywhere else, one of the guiding principles is the (admittedly equally cliched) "politics make for strange bedfellows".

All that is a long-winded and fairly purple way of leading up to a bizarrely charming story about Yemen in Haaretz.  In it, the paper talks of a email they received from Shi'ites in Yemen talking about how they received information that anti-Hamas extremists in Gaza were calling on AQAP to attack Yemeni Jews and were also planning strikes on Israel itself, with weapons built by al-Qaeda in Iraq (specifically, the Quds-1 missiles).  Got it?

Now, I don't think it is impossible to imagine links between AQAP and regional Salafist groups- that has been one of the big fears for a while, as AQAP establishes themselves as a jihadi powerhouse.   I do think that it is unlikely that AQAP, currently harassed, is planning any strikes into Israel, particularly against (as the article states) the nuclear reactor in Dimona.  That is a little outside their comfort zone for the moment.  If they could, I don't doubt that they would, given the chance for glory and the resultant Israeli reaction, which would clearly not be in the best interest of Yemeni stability.   This seems to me more like politics- there is a kernel of truth here, to be sure, but it also is an attempt to get support for Zaydi revivalism against President Salih.  Afer all, they are alerting Israel (and Jews worldwide) of a threat inside Yemen- a little quid pro quo is nice, right?  What this also does is complicate the theory that Iran is behind all the trouble in the north, but I am sure the conspiracy-minded can square that circle.

To me, the most interesting thing here (beside the convolutions, for which I admit I am a junkie) is how it highlights the tension inside Yemen between Zaydism and radical Sunnism.  One of the great and largely unknown stories in Yemen is how the rise of Saudi-funded Salafi schools provoked a backlash in the Zaydi heartland in the north.   There were solid political reasons for Salih accepting Saudi money and letting hem found educational institutes, but, like so many times, it was a decision that led to hideous consequences down the road (thanks to Greg for helping to illuminate that story). 

That's why this is complicated.  You don't need a stock, faux-tough cliche to talk about why things are happening.  Those always obfuscate far more than they enlighten.  To get to where we are, all you need is an understanding of history and human motivations, none of which are particularly complex.   Even a convoluted article can make perfect sense.  It is a source of constant frustration that policy makers and analysts would rather assign a grand rationale to entire regions than try to figure out what is actually going on.


  1. Great write up as always,

    I think that the cliches come from our desire to place things that we don't understand into a group or a box and label it. I think that we, Americans, have a hard time seeing how similar we are to people and places that seem so overwhelmingly corrupt and brutal, this arrogance shows when we deal with rest of the world.

    Just my thoughts.


  2. I think you're right Joe. It is much easier to give something the "other"label then to deal with it. Or, as the Onion said, stereotypes are a great time-saver. Thanks for reading, and for your comment.