"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Not To Write About Yemen: Right-Wing Edition

...and we're restoring equilibrium.

After yesterday's long, cathartic rant against self-proclaimed dissidents who patronizingly see everything bad in Yemen as being a product of US evil-mongering, it is refreshing to jump back to those who see everything bad happening in Yemen as a product of devious, Oriental, two-faced malice.  I think both points of view provide comfort: one sees the world's troubles as rational and planned, the other is able to pin-point all problems on one end of a simple black-and-white spectrum. Granted, the conspiracy-addled left also assigns absolute roles; but they needlessly complicate things with backroom plots (Believe me, I am also very aware of the addled, Trilateral Commission obsessed witches-brew mindset on the far right, but that doesn't come into play in this particular discussion of the Middle East).

That brings us today's FrontPage Magazine article on double-dealing allies in Yemen and Pakistan.  To me, and I would imagine to most people, this is: not news.  It takes a very peculiar mindset to imagine that in any country the wishes or imperatives of any ruling class or people are going to align perfectly with those of the United States.  Ideally, of course, they would, but that is not the world with which we are dealing, nor is it one that is remotely possible.  Instead, we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than how we want it to be.  I may make juvenile jokes, but I still think that the preceding sentence reflects an adult mindset.

Not everyone thinks that way.

President Bush famously said after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that every country had to decide whether they were with us or against us. Unfortunately, several so-called allies have decided to tackle some terrorist groups and not others, believing that the U.S. has no other option but to accept their half-hearted collaboration. Recent news from Yemen and Pakistan show that these two countries are double-dealing and need to be held accountable.

I haven't heard the "with us or against us" line used in such a flattering way in a long time.  Even then, in the passionate aftermath of 9/11, people felt it reflected too simple a view of the world.  I would expect allies like England and Germany to be totally committed to the destruction of al-Qaeda, and would be disappointed if they were not.  Even so, I wouldn't expect them to be on board with every tactic in the battle.  I would expect less out of other countries, whose people want different things, and whose leaders are not in power due to a ballot box.   Again, this is not ideal, nor is it a defense of these governments- it is the way the world is.  I want you to remember, though, the lines "the US has no other option" and "need to be held accountable".   I will ignore the "recent news", because the news is not really recent.

The Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi announced that high-level Al-Qaeda leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, will not be extradited to the United States if they capture him, even though he is an American citizen.

OK.  Al-Awlaki is a citizen, yes.  Of two countries.  And yes, I would like to see him tried here.  But the Yemeni experience with the US judicial system is not a happy one.  The ambiguity over Guantanamo, where many innocent Yemenis have been held alongside the guilty ones, already puts a damper on the relationship.  Even more galling was the arrest of Sheik Moyyad, a popular preacher who was lured to Germany and then sent to the US.  When nothing could be found to convict him of al-Qaeda ties, the US sent him to jail because he raised money for Hezbollah.  I detest Hezbollah, but raising money for them is legal, even encouraged in Yemen, and to be convicted by another country for something that isn't a crime smacks most people the wrong way.    Our over-riding goal in Yemen is to maintain a semblance of order- we can't do that if we insist that Salih shoots himself in the ass.

He (al-Qirbi) explained that the Yemeni government wants to arrest al-Awlaki, but blamed the U.S. for not providing adequate intelligence to allow them to locate him. We have heard the Pakistanis use a similar defense over the years when confronted with their resistance to arresting Taliban leaders.
This might be vacillating...but it also might be true.  There are large swaths of the country outside the control of the government.   This particular incarnation of al-Qaeda is a great danger to Salih, who, more than anything, wants to maintain his power.  I think he'd love to be able to rid himself of them. This doesn't seem to get through to some people though.

Yemen has long harbored Al-Qaeda and radical Salafi elements, making various deals with them and openly negotiating truces when conflict arose.

OK, but not these guys.  These guys don't want to negotiate.   Also, "openly negotiating truces" is not the worst thing in the world to do when dealing with difficult enemies when you don't have the means to dispose of them.  This is par for the course in Yemen, a fractious country where the need to keep the wolves at bay is a constant.

President Saleh’s government and security forces are known to have close ties to the Salafi tribes, whose members are reliable allies when fighting the radical Shiite Houthi rebels.

This is true, although there aren't "Salafi tribes" and the Huthis aren't really radical Shiites in the sense that we understand it.   Tribes might be Salafi, but the formulation above implies something else.  And, as we've said a million times, Zaydism is far closer to Sunni Islam than it is to Twelverism in Iran.    Those are both just scare quotes.  But yes: there are deals made, stupid, futile and short-sighted deals, inspired in some parts by ideology and in some parts by convenience.

There is then a reasonable paragraph about prison breaks and government involvement. I won't really discuss the Pakistan parts, as that isn't my area.   Then, we get the thoughtful conclusion.

The U.S. cannot afford to allow Yemen and Pakistan to continue their current behavior. The governments of these two countries may argue that aggressive action could cause a backlash. The U.S. must emphasize that if action is not taken by them, then the CIA’s drones will take the action for them. The public pressure they fear will become a reality due to their own inaction.
Magical thinking.  That's all this is- a chest-thumping candy-land disguised as realism.   Public backlash is a dangerous, dangerous thing.  It helps our enemies.  Killing terrorists is all well and good, but they can be replaced.  The goal is to kill them or otherwise incapacitate them without making things worse down the road.  The US does not have unlimited power and influence- we sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Iraq, and were not able to keep it from turning into a random slaughterhouse (as opposed to the tightly controlled slaughterhouse it was before).   Actions have reactions, and a smart counter-terrorism strategy is to minimize those.  This isn't a strategy proposed above.  It is empurpled puffery.  Really, think about what it says- if you don't take a destabilizing action that will provide even more of a safe haven for our enemies than exists now, we will.  Got it?

You have to work within the context of a country.  You just have to- it is impossible to have success otherwise.  And yes, that involved unpalatable compromises with people you may detest.  But for the right, it is all about the illusion of action, something dramatic, coupled with an unshakable power that talking tough equals a good strategy.  Wars are never won like that, especially long-term ideological conflicts against asymmetric enemies.  They think that using phrases like "held accountable" and "no other option" are actual actions, as if coming up with titles for a Tom Clancy novel equals victory.  Saying you are serious about something doesn't make it so.

Because again, this is about a narrow, partisan prism.  They distinguish themselves from squishy liberals by pretending that thought equals weakness.  It is about the battle here, and not about the actual struggle.   Just read the last paragraph if you want to know all about the backwards, unrealistic viewpoint, read the last paragraph.  It might be correct in its outlines, but its willful obstinacy and call for ignorance sums everything up nicely.   I've put in bold the important part, which implies perfectly the pipedream of the one-size-fits-all fantasy. 

This conflict is more than a war against Al-Qaeda. It is a war against an entire radical Islamic infrastructure with each component being as important as the next. There must be no distinction made between Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, like the one in Yemen, and similar but separate groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan.

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