"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Saving Yemen?

I'll get back to drones, but my thoughts are still a little jumbled, as every time I think about them I argue with myself and contradict what I just thought.  But for the moment I want to talk about this Marisa Porges article in Foreign Affairs, titled "Saving Yemen".   The title is a bit grandiose, but I don't blame the author for that, as never once have I come up with a decent title (if I had my druthers, any published work would be titled "Yemen: Holy Shit.") 

The thrust of her article is that counter-terrorism, or COIN or whatever method you use, is not enough to save Yemen, even if combined with an aggressive human rights/structural solutions aspect.  What needs to happen, she argues, is political reconciliation, and for us to push Salih to share power, stop being so damned corrupt, and work to get the south and the north back into the process.  This is persuasive, and noble, and has long been a US goal, but I am not sure it is workable.   There are a few things in the article I take issue with, specifically this sentence, which follows the list of violent political problems.

With threats on all sides, the regime moved to curtail political freedoms and civil liberties and began relying more heavily on tribes and patronage to hold the country together, fueling growing resentment among Yemeni citizens.

The first part is surely true, and undeniably an exacerbating factor in Salih's increasing unpopularity.  But the regime isn't just now turning to tribes and patronage to hold things together- this is the way things have always been done in Yemen, whether it is through the imam or any of the Republican rulers.  Indeed, the slipping patronage network and Salih's growing detachment from many tribes are part of what is causing the country to fall apart.  Far from being an unwelcome outcome of dissolution, tribal relations are the underpinning of Yemeni political life.   She is right, and importantly so, to point out that the shrinking circle of a paranoid regime fules more discontent as it shuts people out of the body politic, but is approaching the issue from a slightly askew angle.

And this isn't meant to pick on one phrase just to be a jerk- being a computer-protected jerk is just an ancillary benefit of blogging- but because I think that askew angle informs the piece.  This isn't a specific fault of Porges, but rather a product of American thinking.  Everyone views things from their cultural prism, but it can be dangerous.

I am not sold on political reconciliation.  I think it is important, and would be ideal, but I don't know if you can fully reconcile the country to a central government, at least not in the short term.  It would take a lot for the Huthis to become involved in a government structure that has some 40 years of existence, as opposed to the 1000-year Zaydi rule, especially given the enormous violence directed at them by the center.  The South has been unified with the north for only 20 years, and those decades have been marked by murder, war and occupation. 

See, the problem, and I might be over-stating a little, isn't just that Salih is unliked, it is that the idea of a strong central government is at best tolerated, at worst despised and thought of as a blood-shedding nuisance.  I think that trying to mold San'a into Washington ignores a lot of Yemeni history and culture.  It isn't that they are lawless, pre-political children or anything- far from it.  There is a complex system operating just underneath post-Westphalian structures. 

We need to work within that system, which is in its own way considerably more democratic and egalitarian than Salih's rule.  Again, I think we need Salih, but we also need to work to devolve his power and to cut off streams of corruption, working directly with tribes and local leaders and even NGOs (Porges' piece does an admirable job of talking about the vast civil society that has blossomed in Yemen, and is worth the read if just for the way she deepens our knowledge and adds nuance to a place that many dismiss as irredeemably savage).  I think in time, and with a host of other things talked about on this blog and elsewhere, the stigma of central rule might wear off, and then there might be a stronger government with more power to the people.  But that is in the distant future, and trying to rush it can make things worse. 

As always, authors criticized by me are invited to respond.  In comments is fine, but if you would like email me and a response will have its own post, in full and unedited. 

No comments:

Post a Comment