"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Our Man in Sana'a"

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about Ellen Knickmeyer's piece in Foreign Policy, and you all know how much I hate to be remiss.  The article is about how President Salih is corrupt and mismanages the country.  This is: not a surprise, but it is good to know just who we are getting into bed with. 

I didn't have a problem with most of it, on the surface.  It is an insanely corrupt government, and that is just killing Yemen.  She does an excellent job of highlighting how corruption is destroying any chance of rebuilding an imploding infrastructure.  And there is no doubt that Salih has made some criminally bad decisions, and indecisions.

But there are some strange things going on, outside of factual errors (such as saying Salih led the 1962 coup- he fought on the side of the Republicans, but was decidedly not a leader).  For one thing, the decisions are presented outside of context.  This blog always argues, at the risk of being a bore, that long-term thinking almost always has to be sacrificed to the alter of the immediate.  This isn't good, but it also isn't terribly immoral- it is probably amoral.  Considerations of the day are key, and the chaos the create down the road will be dealt with down the road.  Obviously, this heightens the shuddering violence and instability of the country, but to present this as something unique to Salih is misleading. 

A good example of it is this:
When it comes to short-sightedness regarding Yemen's best interests, Saleh and his ruling family circle have demonstrated a near unerring propensity to err since he assumed the presidency in 1978, after leading a military coup in 1962. Since then, Saleh has built a power system based heavily on buying the goodwill of Yemen's tribal leaders, allegedly paying them to deliver the votes of their people in election after election.

There is the coup part in there, but that has been covered (and I do like the phrase "unerring propensity to err".).  It is the second sentence which weirds me out.  This is presented as if it is something that Salih does because he is corrupt, and because he cares more about power than governance, rather than an inevitable feature of ruling Yemen.  The tribes have always needed to be propitiated, and not just to get votes.  Assuming another president could avoid this is unrealistic.

What gets me in the conclusion.
But if Saleh continues to refuse and delay reforms, the United States and its allies should do something inconceivable in the can-do war on terror: back off and let Saleh feel the pain of his sucked-dry economy and thwarted people. Rather than trying to prop up another wobbly tyrant, as in Afghanistan, the United States would help most by allowing Yemen's citizens, and potentially better Yemeni leaders, to finally have a say.
This reminds me of one of my favorite lines in literature, the last line in The Sun Also Rises.  Brett wistfully and probably unrealistically says to Jake that they good have had such a damn good time together, to which he replies yes, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"   There is a devastating mix of romanticism, weariness, cynicism and a touch of hope in it.  But it never happened, it never was going to, and it being pretty is as far as the thought would go.

It is pretty to think that cutting back aid would allow a good government to spring into place, that backing off would do anything other than accelerate the chaos.  But it won't- there isn't anyone with a power base to really run Yemen, and that is how we are forced to think.  I am not saying that Yemenis inherently need a strongman or that Arabs just want someone to rule them or any of that claptrap, but that Yemen right now, with its hideous conditions, isn't able to transition from Salih to a competent bureaucrat with an efficient civil service humming beneath him.  A lot of this is Salih's fault; a lot of it is in the system.  No one wants to support him forever.  I'd love it if it were possible to replace him with someone better who could keep things together.  But we don't choose the countries we are involved in, and can't choose the conditions we find them in.  What we can choose is how to deal with them smartly and with long-term planning.  In the short-term we need Ali Abdullah.  We can't dreamily turn our back and wait until there is a more comfortable leader with whom to deal.  Our policy has to know this, but also to help ease into the next five, ten or twenty years.  Anything else is an exercise in feeling good at the expense of our security and those we are ostensibly helping.

As always, the policy of AJG is to allow the person I've needlessly attacked to respond, in full and unedited, with as many attacks at my learning, character or grooming as desired.  Ellen Knickmeyer, if by some chance you are reading this, please feel free to drop me a line and open a debate. 


  1. Dear Jake, I mean, Brian,
    OK, I'll bite. And in biting, first let me say that I like many always find yours and Gregory's work on Yemen illuminating, path-blazing, etc.

    On your comments re my piece -- the U.S. has a history of saying, in the mistaken impression that it is acting under the motivation of hard-bitten realism and expediency and what have you, that it will prop up some inadequate leader no matter what, because, as FDR said, he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch.

    And thus we have in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I hope not now Yemen, U.S.-backed military regimes that do absolutely nothing, including the bare minimum of security demands we make of them, and that we nonetheless continue propping up because it is the easy way sted conditioning and monitoring aid and reform. It hasn't worked too well in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even for the limited purposes of our security, has it? So why would we want to try it in Yemen?

    Handing over aid without conditions allows military regimes to continue resisting all public pressure for reform. And thus, as my piece says, it heightens the conditions that breed insurgency and al Qaeda, and ultimately increases rather than decreases the instability and unrest within a country and a region.

    Propping up bad governments leads to miserable conditions for all concerned, except the lucky tyrants we are propping up. Stability and equilibrium come when the military sphere shrinks to its proper place within a society, when the people can make their demands heard, and when the government has to take those demands into account.

    It's not a matter of dreamily waiting for a leader to come forward. It's a matter of not blocking -- by further plunking a big, oversize military right in the middle of powr system -- the natural process of civil participation that let leaders come forward.

    By the way, your suggestion about how we need to have Salih the not-so-bad dictator around for just another five, 10 years is exactly what the Yemeni security people are arguing now.


  2. Hi Ellen-

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. It is unfortunate that I spent such little time on what I liked in the article, which was most of it, and focused on the few parts I did not. I'd say it is the nature of blogging, but seems an abdication of responsibility, right?

    Anyway, I take your point about the proper place in society of the military- I think the real central genius of America's founding was putting the military outside of politics. There are different conceptions of this model, such as Turkey's, but you are correct. The bigger the role of the military plays the more certain it is that there will be massive repression and corruption.

    The part that I don't see though is how we get from A to B, with B as a semi-stable government with a functioning civil society, in the absence of aid. I don't know how that transition would happen.

    Now, there is smart aid. I've argued that we need to promote more direct contact with tribal and regional leaders, bypassing avenues of corruption and establishing better relationships with the historic power centers of Yemen. This would hinder Salih's government while still providing him with the ability to fight AQAP and not creating a total collapse. This also might be unrealistic, but I think it takes into account the conditions.

    AQAP is not the most important issue in the country, as you have pointed out, but what they can do is increase Yemen's decline by being a constant thorn in the side of anything decent- they create and exploit chaos. And so I think it is important to fight them, as they can continue to make long-term development impossible. And for that we need a capable central government, and I don't see how there can be one at this time.

    This might be a failure on my part, and am open to see the path. It gives me zero pleasure to want Salih to remain in power. I am also fully aware of the deep paradox of needing the obstacle of progress to help us achieve progress. Unfortunately, that's where I see Yemen at a uniquely fragile and precarious state that isn't immediately open to normal models of governance.

    Thank you again for your reply. Hope you're doing well over there.


  3. Hi, Brian,
    I mainly was urging rigorous conditioning of aid, not cutting off of aid. And doing what we can diplomatically to keep Saudi and China etc. from pumping in cash no questions asked. If we don't condition it, and let Saleh and the system that has grown up around him for the past 30 years spend the aid as they will, I think that would block all incentive for the government improving services, cutting corruption, allowing civil participation that would lead to a mature political society etc.
    And me, I have pretty much no clue re how to deal specifically with the tribes. But think in general conditioning aid to reform would help there as well..
    Really do value yours' and Gregory's work.
    Best, Ellen

  4. Hi Ellen-

    I think that we've found some agreement, then. I like the phrase "rigorous conditioning", and absolutely agree. I do kind of think Salih, even without conditioning, might open things up a little bit- just to keep himself in power; he is a master at giving a little bit to keep people, if not happy, then not rebellious- but that would be a short-term thing while he plans his next move.

    It is almost a shame- had he stepped down as promised in 05 he would have been the most important leader in modern Arab history.

    Keep up the good work, and stay safe.