Page 1 of 2 Obama's Yemeni odyssey targets China
By M K Bhadrakumar
A year ago, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh made the startling revelation
that his country's security forces apprehended a group of Islamists linked to
the Israeli intelligence forces. "A terrorist cell was apprehended and will be
referred to the courts for its links with the Israeli intelligence services,"
Saleh added, "You will hear about the trial proceedings." Nothing was ever
heard and the trail went cold. Welcome to the magical land of Yemen, where in
the womb of time the Arabian Nights were played out.
Combine Yemen with the mystique of Islam, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the
Israeli intelligence and you get a heady mix. The head of the US Central
Command, General David Petraeus, dropped in at the capital, Sana'a, on Saturday
and vowed to Saleh
increased American aid to fight al-Qaeda. United States President Barack Obama
promptly echoed Petraeus' promise, assuring that the US would step up
intelligence-sharing and training of Yemeni forces and perhaps carry out joint
attacks against militants in the region.
Many accounts say that Obama, who is widely regarded as a gifted and
intelligent politician, is blundering into a catastrophic mistake by starting
another war that could turn out to be as bloody and chaotic and unwinnable as
Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, on the face of it, Obama does seem erratic. The
parallels with Afghanistan are striking. There has been an attempt to destroy a
US plane by a Nigerian student who says he received training in Yemen. And
America wants to go to war.
Yemen, too, is a land of wonderfully beautiful rugged mountains that could be a
guerilla paradise. Yemenis are a hospitable lot, like Afghan tribesmen, but as
Irish journalist Patrick Cockurn recollects, while they are generous to passing
strangers, they "deem the laws of hospitality to lapse when the stranger leaves
their tribal territory, at which time he becomes 'a good back to shoot at'."
Surely, there is romance in the air - almost like in the Hindu Kush. Fiercely
nationalistic, almost every Yemeni has a gun. Yemen is also, like Afghanistan,
a land of conflicting authorities, and with foreign intervention, a little
civil war is waiting to flare up.
Is Obama so incredibly forgetful of his own December 1 speech outlining his
Afghan strategy that he violated his own canons? Certainly not. Obama is a
smart man. The intervention in Yemen will go down as one of the smartest moves
that he ever made for perpetuating the US's global hegemony. It is America's
answer to China's surge.
A cursory look at the map of region will show that Yemen is one of the most
strategic lands adjoining waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.
It flanks Saudi Arabia and Oman, which are vital American protectorates. In
effect, Uncle Sam is "marking territory" - like a dog on a lamppost. Russia has
been toying with the idea of reopening its Soviet-era base in Aden. Well, the
US has pipped Moscow in the race.
The US has signaled that the odyssey doesn't end with Yemen. It is also moving
into Somalia and Kenya. With that, the US establishes its military presence in
an entire unbroken stretch of real estate all along the Indian Ocean's western
rim. Chinese officials have of late spoken of their need to establish a naval
base in the region. The US has now foreclosed China's options. The only country
with a coastline that is available for China to set up a naval base in the
region will be Iran. All other countries have a Western military presence.
The American intervention in Yemen is not going to be on the pattern of Iraq
and Afghanistan. Obama will ensure he doesn't receive any body bags of American
servicemen serving in Yemen. That is what the American public expects from him.
He will only deploy drone aircraft and special forces and "focus on providing
intelligence and training to help Yemen counter al-Qaeda militants", according
to the US military. Obama's main core objective will be to establish an
enduring military presence in Yemen. This serves many purposes.
A new great game begins
First, the US move has to be viewed against the historic backdrop of the
Shi'ite awakening in the region. The Shi'ites (mostly of the Zaidi group) have
been traditionally suppressed in Yemen. Shi'ite uprisings have been a recurring
theme in Yemen's history. There has been a deliberate attempt to minimize the
percentage of Shi'ites in Yemen, but they could be anywhere up to 45%.
More importantly, in the northern part of the country, they constitute the
majority. What bothers the US and moderate Sunni Arab states - and Israel - is
that the Believing Youth Organization led by Hussein Badr al-Houthi, which is
entrenched in northern Yemen, is modeled after Hezbollah in Lebanon in all
respects - politically, economically, socially and culturally.
Yemenis are an intelligent people and are famous in the Arabian Peninsula for
their democratic temperament. The Yemeni Shi'ite empowerment on a
Hezbollah-model would have far-reaching regional implications. Next-door Oman,
which is a key American base, is predominantly Shi'ite. Even more sensitive is
the likelihood of the dangerous idea of Shi'ite empowerment spreading to Saudi
Arabia's highly restive Shi'ite regions adjoining Yemen, which on top of it
all, also happen to be the reservoir of the country's fabulous oil wealth.
Saudi Arabia is entering a highly sensitive phase of political transition as a
new generation is set to take over the leadership in Riyadh, and the palace
intrigues and fault lines within the royal family are likely to get
exacerbated. To put it mildly, given the vast scale of institutionalized
Shi'ite persecution in Saudi Arabia by the Wahhabi establishment, Shi'ite
empowerment is a veritable minefield that Riyadh is petrified about at this
juncture. Its threshold of patience is wearing thin, as the recent
uncharacteristic resort to military power against the north Yemeni Shi'ite
communities bordering Saudi Arabia testifies.
The US faces a classic dilemma. It is all right for Obama to highlight the need
of reform in Muslim societies - as he did eloquently in his Cairo speech last
June. But democratization in the Yemeni context - ironically, in the Arab
context - would involve Shi'ite empowerment. After the searing experience in
Iraq, Washington is literally perched like a cat on a hot tin roof. It would
much rather be aligned with the repressive, autocratic government of Saleh than
let the genie of reform out of the bottle in the oil rich-region in which it
has profound interests.
Obama has an erudite mind and he is not unaware that what Yemen desperately
needs is reform, but he simply doesn't want to think about it. The paradox he
faces is that with all its imperfections, Iran happens to be the only
"democratic" system operating in that entire region.
Iran's shadow over the Yemeni Shi'ite consciousness worries the US to no end.
Simply put, in the ideological struggle going on in the region, Obama finds
himself with the ultra-conservative and brutally autocratic oligarchies that
constitute the ruling class in the region. Conceivably, he isn't finding it
easy. If his own memoirs are to be believed, there could be times when the
vague recollections of his childhood in Indonesia and his precious memories of
his own mother, who from all accounts was a free-wheeling intellectual and
humanist, must be stalking him in the White House corridors.
Israel moves in
But Obama is first and foremost a realist. Emotions and personal beliefs drain
away and strategic considerations weigh uppermost when he works in the Oval
Office. With the military presence in Yemen, the US has tightened the cordon
around Iran. In the event of a military attack on Iran, Yemen could be put to
use as a springboard by the Israelis. These are weighty considerations for
The fact is that no one is in control as a Yemeni authority. It is a cakewalk
for the formidable Israeli intelligence to carve out a niche in Yemen - just as
it did in northern Iraq under somewhat comparable circumstances.