Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Kicking In Of A Rotten Door. Part Five, The Red Sea Edition

Here we are again dear reader. It is beginning to feel like Shakespeare “ Henry V;” “once more into the breach dear friends.” It is off to one of the most politically dangerous places in the world to see what real revolution looks like. This time on the itinerary: Yemen.

A very long time ago, when Rome was kicking ass and taking names, Yemen was a glitteringly rich domain. It was a transshipment point for the goods of India and it shipped critical goods itself. If you have read your Bible Christmas story you have heard of this critical substance, more precious than gold; frankincense. Roman religion ran on the offerings to the Gods, and those offerings ran on frankincense. In superstitious Rome, frankincense was a land office building.

But in the fourth century of the common era that business came to a screeching halt. A new emperor was in town, and he brought a new religion with him: Christianity. The beginning of the Christian era spelled the end of the Yemen economy. Yemen fell off the map, never to recover.

Even today Yemen's desperate economic straights are the central political fact of life in the nation state. It is the poorest nation in the region. Add to this the central fact of geography, plus rampant tribalism in the arid north,  and central government in Yemen becomes more theory than fact.

A little more than twenty years ago Yemen was not even a unitary state. The vestiges of colonialism had divided the nation into South and North Yemen. The South, once free of the British presence in Aden, decided to kick up its heals, just because it could, and became a Communist state. That kicking of the heals ended in 1990 when South and North became one state. Shortly after that, in 1994, Yemen underwent  a nasty civil war.  When the dust finally settled, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former President of North Yemen, became leader of unified Yemen. Saleh has been the head honcho of some sort of Yemen since 1978. That thirty three year run of leadership ran into the brick wall of history just this year.

Unless you have been in a coma, or get your news from Fox  (pretty much the same thing), you will know that history has been on the move in the Arab lands. A small spark in Tunisia set off the mother of all political bush-fires. It surged over Libya and consumed the rotten structure of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Barely pausing, it back-flashed in Libya and reduced the the foreign policy notions of Team Obama to smoldering ruins. Having cooked President Hope and Change’s goose, the wildfire then crossed the Suez and barreled up and down the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis pulled out all stops to create a fire-break in their own land and to put out the conflagration in Bahrain. Meanwhile, up in Syria, that same bush fire was singing the eyebrows off of Bashar al-Assad. While all were thus distracted, Yemen spontaneously combusted. That hang fire put an end to the thirty three year record of rule that Saleh enjoyed.

For the last week or so, the whole policy process in the Near East, and the political machinations that underlay that process, have been focused on the singular question of how to get Ali Abdullah Saleh to go gently into the good night of exile. The people of Yemen have made clear they want the man gone. As of April 29, 2011 they are piled up in the streets, in massive protests, because they want the man gone. They don’t want to wait a month, they don’t want to wait a week, they don’t even want to wait a day. If they could, they would strap the man to a unguided missile and fire it off, right now. The masses figure that given a month, Saleh may find a way to stay in power. They might be right. The central flaw of  Gulf Co-operation Council brokered deal is that Ali Abdullah Saleh is an utterly untrustworthy man.

Since the Gulf Co-operation Council has already given Saleh a get-out-of-jail card, valid in all participating nations, trying to preserve the man’s dignity seems a moot point. After all, by requiring the granting of immunity from prosecution as part of the deal he is admitting he is and was a no-good, murderous thug. Maybe the real reason for month’s delay has to do with finding a nation state willing to take him up. That and sandbagging as much wealth as possible into untraceable bank accounts. Saleh must be burning up the wires between Yemen and Monaco, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and all the other odd nations were dirty deals are done dirt cheap.

Looking past the end days of the Saleh regime, it is still hard to see where this might be headed. Yemen will still be ruinously poor, with a sputtering economy, and a restive, separatist north. This is one nation where concern about Al Qaeda might be legitimate. After all Salafist central, Saudi Arabia, is just to the north. For obscure reasons, we never really talk about how much OBL and his unhappy campers are an outgrowth of Saudi Salafist thinking. After all, right after oil, Salafist violent Jihadism/Terrorism is Saudi Arabia’s biggest export. Strange how not how even Fox News breaths a word of this.

Not to be a buzz-kill, but after Saleh, Yemen could spiral into a failed state. The economy is rickety, the people are poor, the unemployment is massive, toss a rock and you hit a fire-breathing Imam; this is not looking too good. The nation is in deep hock to the IMF, and what little economy the nation has is based on agriculture. Add to the mix an exploding population and it definitely looks like we need to put away the party hats and figure out how to stabilize this nation pronto.

And this is where despair really kicks in. Our nation, the US, no longer has the chops to stabilize anything. This is not because team Obama is feckless and totally without a plan; (although Team Obama is) this is something much worse. Sometime during or after Iraq, our entire foreign policy edifice jumped the rails. Maybe it was because the political cognitive-dissonance required to buy into W’s casus belli utterly ruined the institutions that supported W’s jolly little war. Obama is in a muddle because official Washington cannot even buy a clue on foreign policy. It is all cloud-cuckoo land, all the time in fever swamps of the Potomac. Fanticism is the new normal. Both Republicans and Democrats indulge in foreign policy fever-dreams. The only argument between the parties is which will-of-the-wisp to chase after. Foreign policy has become just another part of the political blood sport that is the end-all and be-all of D.C. The National Interest of the US is not even in the back seat of the car in this game of Demolition Derby. The National Interest is hog-tied, tossed bound and gagged in the trunk, while the two drivers of the DC game fight over the wheel. Just look at the total hash our policy toward Libya has become to see how our political elites behave when the fecal matter hits the rotating, electrical powered, air pushing blade.

Figuring out how to keep Yemen from shattering into a failed state is beyond our ken. Our nation is in la-la land, dreaming Wilsonian dreams of remaking the world. Fantasists now rule both our political parties. There are no counters to this. Instead of raising to the challenge fo Yemen, our political elites will instead continue to wallow in the political thumb-sucking, and the temper-tantrums that pass for policy discussions in D.C. Reason, maturity, deliberation, and accountability have been banished from the nation’s capitol; only the clown-car of political gamesmanship remains. Gentle reader you do not want this lot, the chattering class of Washington DC, coming up with a solution to the crisis of Yemen. It is much better if the Yemeni people figure this out for themselves.
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