Friday, January 15, 2010

Yemen, an example of failed US foreign policy

Yemen, an example of failed US foreign policy

Until Christmas eve, Yemen was not in the news. It was no more on the radar of our government than many other countries. It was just one more troubled place in the Mid-East.

Then, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23 year old Nigerian, tried to blow up himself and a Northwest Airlines plane as it was approaching Detroit from Amsterdam. Umar failed. Upon his arrest he told interrogators that he had spent several months with Al Quaeda operatives in Yemen who had trained him for this mission and had supplied the explosive material. (The government of Yemen denies that he got explosives in Yemen but no one seems to believe them).

That put Yemen on the map big time. Gen. Petraeus came to visit to announce an increase in US aid. The US embassy, and that of France, and some other European countries were closed for a day or two to highlight the threat of Al Quaeda in Yemen. Someone--it is not clear whether it was the Yemeni government or the US-- bombed some Al Qaeda members and claimed to have killed some of their leaders.

Yemen located at the Southern tip of the Arab peninsula is about twice the the size of Wyoming with a population of 24 million persons. Half of them are 15 years or younger; Yemenis have a life expectancy of 61 years. The average family has 6 children. The unemployment rate is 35 %.

Like most Mid-Eastern countries, oil is a major source of government income. But the oil is expected to run out in less than ten years. In the meantime sizable reserves of natural gas have been discovered. (The first tanker with liquefied natural gas arrived in Boston last week) More ominously, Yemen already very arid in portions of the country, expects to run out of water in the near future.

Until 1990, Yemen consisted of two countries: North and South Yemen; the latter was in the Soviet orbit. The two unified into the Republic of Yemen in 1990 but fought a brief civil war in 1994. Reunified after that, Yemen is battling a military uprising in the north of the country and there is fighting with independence movements in the south. Not unlike in Afghanistan, the control exercised by the central government is very limited outside the capital Sana'a. Much of the small country is run by various tribal chiefs. Some of them are hospitable to Al Quaeda and its Islamist message.

The US government has been giving some aid to Yemen over the years. Most of it was military aid. A significant proportion of the remainder came in the form of advice on how to run a democracy in Yemen. The US government was telling the Yemenis how to run their government. From our point of view that may have been money well spent. It is difficult to believe that it made us a lot of friends in Yemen.

Consider this analogy: in 2000 the Bushies stole the election with all kinds of voting shenanigans in Florida, aided and abetted by the US Supreme Court. Similar irregularities are said to have occurred in 2004. If Canada or Britain sent an aid mission to Washington to teach us how to hold clean elections, it would not gain Canada or Britain a lot of friends here. I suspect our advice had the same effect in Yemen.

Our aid comes and goes. Before 1990, USAID had various projects in Yemen and a certain number of young Yemenis were sent to the US to study. During the first Gulf War, Yemen refused to join the coalition against Iraq. We punished Yemen by withdrawing Peace Corps volunteers, ending military assistance and most other aid. Countries that do not support our foreign policy can expect no aid from us or no relations with us. After 2001 Yemen received more aid, mostly military, in connection with the “war on terror.” Now that Al Quaeda is active there, we go and double aid to the country and urge them to fight Al Quaeda actively.

Our relations to Yemen are transparently self-interested. Here is a country with 23 million people, many of them unemployed, many others scratching together a very poor living. But we are not interested in the fate of the Yemeni people. We are not asking what we can do for the people in Yemen to improve their agriculture, to improve their water supplies, to extend lives and provide work. We are only asking what Yemen can do for us.

We treat the Yemenis pretty much as we treat the rest of the world, as means to our own ends. To the extent that they can increase our security we give them arms. We also “teach” them how to govern themselves. For the rest, we make it as clear as we can without putting it into words, that we do not care two hoots what happens to them.

There are several things wrong with that: 1. It is patently immoral. 2. It does not make friends for us. 3. It does not make us any safer.

It is not surprising that people around the globe do not like us a lot.