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Odds and Endgames

Spent the weekend in beautiful Cambridge, WI (population: 1101, on the nose). A lovely little town, but not one where the news comes readily. So a touch of catching up: one story and one piece of analysis, both which highlight the baffling complexity of challenges facing Yemen.

The first, of course, is that General David Petreaus visted San’a to discuss heightened co-operation between the US and Yemen, specifically in the field of combatting terrorism. Saba reports that the general supports “strongly” Yemeni unity.

Here is where the problem- or at least the potential problem- comes in. Unity and terrorism, although related, are seperate beasts. Qaeda doesn’t pose an existential threat to Yemeni unity by itself. What it is capable of is exacerbating, by further distracting the government, the two major issues it faces- southern secession and the Huthi rebellion in the north. Both of these issues are not ones which can be solved by the military alone. The fear is that the US, though taking a more nuanced view on the world than that of, say, the last administration, is going to help Salih’s government take care, militarily, of its enemies. The northern and southern rebellions are not issues which can be solved by the military alone (the southern movement in particular shouldn’t be a military issue at all). It is easy to see a skilled government conflating all three threats for a distracted US government. The job of Petreaus is not just to help San’a defeat terrorism, but to keep Yemen a unified, stable country. Merely increasing the ability of Salih to use power of the state (such as it is) to deal wih the symptoms of Yemen’s troubles is to kick the can, very briefly, down the road.

(This also just popped up while I was reading the Post: Yemen Government Wants Tougher Laws to Curb Kidnaps, Unrest”. This seems like a good idea, but I am a little worried it is tied to what I was talking about above: the fear that everything can be lumped into the terrorism file. We’ve seen states do this for the last 8 years, sometimes with disasterous results)

The Guardianhas an essay by Brian Whitakker, the title of which “Yemen: The Next Failed State?” isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but then again I’ve always felt that titles are hard. It is a pretty good article, though, and does a nice job talking about the nature of the Yemeni government, and is also one of the first things that I’ve read in this vein which talks about Yemen’s attempts at democracy (this tends to be ignored as it muddies up the water).

It falls apart at the end though, in the section reserved for reccomendations. I understand this; a writer has a word count, and after enumerating all of Yemen’s problems you tend to be at the end of your space. I’m going to paste a decent chunk of this, though, and then briefly talk about it.

The Yemeni government views this primarily as a security issue – and was encouraged to treat it as such by the Bush administration. But it’s actually far more than that: the causes of Yemen’s insecurity are basically social and political. Solving the problem is not easy, especially in a country with such limited resources, but it should start with a more inclusive style of government where people can feel that the state is at least trying to look after their interests rather than feathering the nests of the elite. It’s very doubtful, though, whether that can happen while Ali Abdullah Saleh remains president.

Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, spent several days in hospital last week, allegedly being treated for bruises sustained while “practicising his favourite sport”. If he’s wise, and wants to avoid more bruising, he’ll step aside now. But I don’t suppose he will.

I think the first part is correct, and it is nice to see someone talking about the social/political dynamic (I would also add economic). The wistful tone regarding Salih stepping aside, though, I think goes off the track a little bit. And this is one of the big stumbling points when coming up with a Yemeni policy: there aren’t really any good answers. It might (might) be distasteful to us to see Salih remain in power after 30 years, especially as the idea of democracy has been waylaid. But what would come after Salih? Someone would step in, but it is questionable if the patronage networks would still be in place to maintain even a sembalance of a functioning state. One thing Salih has in his corner is that the near-term is so bleak it is difficult to plan long-term reforms. It is a self-perpetuating trap. I am curious if our readers have any thoughts on this balance (knowing that reforms are the only way for Yemen to survive in even the medium-term, but that the current threats are so big it might not make it to the medium).


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