"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How Not To Write About Yemen: Left-Wing Edition

There's a label on this blog called "Right-Wing Watch", which is one of the bigger non-Yemen ones (this isn't saying much, I admit).  So it is with a self-congratulatory sense of ecumenicalism that I introduce this post, which fisks a far-left view of what is happening Yemen.  I do this not (just) to make fun of people I don't know and feel like a big man, but to illustrate one of the most frustrating parts of analyzing US foreign policy: our parochialism, and almost knee-jerk instinct to view anything through narrow and self-serving partisan lenses. 

This article comes from Dissident Voice, "a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and justice."  Right off the bat, I am annoyed by this.  I don't like someone calling themselves a dissident when they are publishing safely in their name.  Maybe the town fathers will click their tongues at your non-conformity, but I think dissident needs to imply a danger to your physical safety and independence.  Havel was a dissident.  I looked through the site a bit and didn't see any mention of people being imprisoned or killed for their view.  When the biggest danger you incur is getting an STD from some free spirit you met at the co-op, you haven't really earned your right to being called a dissident.

That might be a bit over the top, but I get annoyed at self-righteousness (except my own, it seems).

There are actually two articles related to Yemen on their site right now, the first and less-interesting one is titles "Who Wants This American Dead?", and it is about the assassination order for Anwar al-Awlaki.  Sort of.  A lot of it has to do with the crazy American preacher John Hagee, who is described as being similarly "out-there".  This is my favorite kind of moral equivalency, most often seen by the right.  Sure, this guy may be bad, but look at this guy on the other side (this also makes the bizzare mistake of thinking that al-Awlaki is a liberal- and he must be, if he doesn't like the US!  It is wonderful how the right assumes that anti-gay anti-women retrograde murderers are liberals, and how the far left appropriates the same.  Again, deep parochialism).  Hagee is a disgusting nut with terrible ideas; al-Awlaki would love to see me dead.  And you, and the editors at Dissent.  Big difference.  The rest of the article is a series of one-sentence paragraphs which seems to imply that the US created al-Awlaki and helps him out in order to have an enemy.  I think. I get lost when reading nonsensical gibberish.   This was the best part though:

Is it coincidence that Awlaki is found on the periphery of so many well-timed incidents? Why are federal law enforcement agents also found on the periphery?
Q1) No.  He is kind of involved in these things.  Q2) No.  They are investigating them.  Are these actual questions?
Who benefits from having a Muslim cleric killed in a Muslim country by U.S. forces instead of apprehending him for questioning?
Q1) No one, really.  I think killing him is self-defeating and a waste of energy.  But not because it prevents him from spilling about his handlers. 
Kill him and watch this evidentiary trail vanish like the “dancing Israelis” who were spotted filming and celebrating the mass murder of 911.

My own question: What?   Also, why throughout the article do you refuse to put a slash between the "9" and the "11"?  Not a big deal, just strange.

This is really the worst kind of writing- it assumes something (the US is behind all of this, or maybe Israel, but most likely both).  It then "proves" it by mixing up different threads, all of which sound nefarious, then asking rhetorical questions whose answers only help deepen the conspiracy.  It is lazy and stupid. 

OK, but I've spent too long on that nonsense.  The more interesting and better-argued (and reality-based) article is this one, "Yemen's Sorrowful Options".    It does a fairly good job of presenting why Yemen is in such a bad place, but, while rooted in reality, approaches it at a strange angle.  It perspective is skewed, because it looks at things entirely through the lens of Western machinations.   Let's look.  It starts off well, accurately showing how powerful countries use weak ones when they are needed, then ignore them.  Then we start to focus in on Yemen.

(Yemen's) government is desperate to hold on to the rein of power, amid corruption, extreme poverty and untold Western pressures. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s president of the last thirty one years, has impressively negotiated his political survival through mounting challenges. The 1994 civil war left many thousands dead, and despite the north’s ‘victory’ the discontent of the south never waned. More, a Houthi revolt in the north is long running. Its latest manifestation lasted for six months and caused many deaths, most of which remained unreported. A mass migration of hundreds of thousands (270,000 by the recent estimates of the United Nations World Food Program) coincided with, or followed, the fighting. This is now temporarily in check, thanks to a fragile ceasefire.

There is a weird passivity going on here, as if the government is struggling in the face of corruption, rather than unpopular because of their own immense corruption.   The two wars left many dead, partly, even largely, because of the government and their desire to hold on the power at any cost.   I also find interesting the gibe about "untold Western pressures".  They aren't really "untold", except in this paragraph.  This implies a hell of a lot more than it shows, especially considering that some of the Western pressure is to ease up on the press and make headway in the corruption problem.

According to some analysts, the ceasefire in the north could allow the central government in Sanaa to tend to the challenge growing in the south. Victoria Clark, author of the recent book Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes claimed that, “Southern disaffection has gone beyond the point of no return…Saleh’s biggest mistake would be to crack down on southerners as hard as he has tried to do on the Houthi rebels.”
However, under immense (and increasing) western pressure, Saleh is likely to crack down. Western governments, led by the US and Britain, run out of patience fairly quickly when the leaders of a poor, fragmented country opt for dialogue — even when such a choice might actually result in long-term political stability.

This is absolute garbage, as anyone following the situation knows.  Salih is not cracking down because of Western pressure.  He is cracking down because the movement is a challenge to the territorial integrity of his country, a threat to his pocket-book and the wheels of his patronage machine, and thus to the power of him and his family.   The US doesn't want him to crack down on the South; it wants him to engage in dialogue.  This thought is 100% removed from reality.  Now, it could be argued that Salih actually wants to peacefully engage, but the US won't let him, and our pretending to is actually a pernicious way of creating violence (even though that is bad for us, but good I suppose for Halliburton and the CFR, but I prefer to look at actual actions rather than tinfoil-hatted gibberish). 
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai merely mentioned the possibility of engaging the Taliban, it generated much rebuke.
Nope.  When Karzai said he was going to join the Taliban, it earned a rebuke.  But engaging with less militant, woman-burning elements of the Taliban is part of our official policy.
A similar scenario happened in Pakistan. When Palestinian factions achieved the Mecca Agreement in February 2007 to mend their differences, the US immediately conditioned its financial backing of Mahmoud Abbas, and the agreement was successfully disintegrated.
 Fair enough.  I don't know enough about this to argue.  
In the same vein, any Yemeni attempt at reaching out to the disaffected forces within the country, including tribes, opposition parties, and the various militant offshoots has been dismissed as an attempt to appease the terrorists.
 No, it hasn't.  We've wanted him to engage with opposition parties.  Policy is to give some autonomy to tribes.   The problem is that Salih is trying to continue to consolidate power when most of the country is against him.

Much of the rest of the article makes sense.  It talks of how we only view Yemen as a security matter, and how the West is not doing enough to help with the food crisis.  The latter is unmistakeably true, a tragic slip-up that is morally bankrupt and strategically backwards.

But there is a strange tone throughout, including blaming corruption on Western miscalculation (there is also a strange undertone that could make this an article by a hard-headed "realist"- violence is because of our inhumanity.  I buy that to an extent, but it also tends to negate the idea that there is a "so-called" war on terror).  What bugs me the most about articles like this is their nannyish protectionism of noble foreigners- everything bad is because of jowly generals with their buzzcuts and reflecting glasses and taste for human misery.   It takes away agency from the Yemenis; it dehumanizes them as much as a Kissengerian chessboard.

The West has messed up in Yemen a lot, and has helped to mess up Yemen.  We've made huge mistakes, and been blind as have the Turks, Saudis and Egyptians.   But the problems in Yemen are, as we've said here, largely due to their own history, and the mistakes of their own leaders.   To refuse to see that, to blame everyone, is just as misguided and dangerous as the most bull-headed jingo who thinks that al-Qaeda only exists because those towel-heads hate our freedom.   History and politics are far more complicated than that, and they exist and are influenced by things that aren't contained on our continent.   Not recognizing that is a guarantee to repeat the same mistakes, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

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