Tag Archives: Yemen

Yemen at Center Stage

Yemen does not exactly loom large in the world consciousness, and certainly not among the many Westerners who would have a hard time placing it on a map.  US foreign policy toward the country has often been an adjunct to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s far richer and larger neighbor to the north and a key US ally.

But a recent flight afforded me the time to begin reading Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, which places Yemen and Yemeni politics in the center of global politics and terrorist networks, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to 2012, when the book came out, and from jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya to bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  Although Yemen is often portrayed as a remote backwater of the Arabian peninsula, Johnsen brings together many strands of international history over the past three decades by drawing links from his detailed familiarity with Yemen’s great families.  Even Osama bin Laden, usually identified as a Saudi, was a younger son of a Yemeni pauper-turned-billionaire who made some useful connections with the Saudi royal family.

I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but it is a real eye-opener regarding the numerous connections between disparate parts of the contemporary Arab world and the inner workings of various different terrorist organizations.  I am particularly struck by the degree to which family, clan, and tribe shape such a large portion of organizations usually designated religious, which may reveal my own blindspots as a member of an anonymizing and impersonal modern Western society.  Johnsen also points out occasional clues missed or misunderstood by counter-terrorism officials, and analyzes a dispute between the lead FBI investigator and the US ambassador to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.  But he does so without succumbing to 20/20 hindsight; instead, his narrative helps readers understand the ambiguity of many of the pieces of evidence before their interpretation became indelibly clear in specific attacks.

The book is very readable and engaging.  The action is fast.  Readers unfamiliar with Arabic names may have trouble keeping track of the many actors involved, often with similar names.  Such readers will find a helpful appendix with brief bios of “Principal Characters”; no doubt the author would have liked to include more than made it in.  There is also a very useful map of Yemen just after the table of contents, which will be essential for readers who have not familiarized themselves with the terrain of the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Advertisements

Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

Related News:

The Sins of the Fathers…

In 1951, the British temporarily lost control of Iran’s oil fields, because they had refused to respond to Iranian complaints that the UK was not sharing the profits from the sale of oil with Iran.  In response to Britain’s cold shoulder, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, to which Britain responded with a naval blockade and trade embargo.  When economic sanctions failed to produce the desired de-nationalization of Iranian oil by 1953, the UK looked for more extreme possibilities.  Due to UK support for the US during the Korean War, the US supported the UK in Iran by executing “Operation Ajax,” a covert operation to depose the popular Prime Minister and replace him with an Iranian military leader who would support greater power being held by the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi.  As a result of the successful coup, the US secured a good share of Iranian oil and Iranian oil profits, and an ally against Soviet Russia to the north.  The post-coup military rule crushed all political dissent and developed a much-hated secret police, SAVAK, trained by the CIA.

After 26 years of rule with Western support, the now widely-hated Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but the American role in 1953 was well-remembered.  When the US admitted the exiled Shah into the country nine months after he left Iran, a group of Iranian students supporting the Islamic Revolution took over the American Embassy in Tehran and precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis (known in Farsi as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا, “The capture of the American spy lair”).  Thirty-four years after the Islamic Revolution, the government in Tehran remains firmly opposed to the US.

In retribution against Iran for the Islamic Revolution, the US supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, during which Iraqi forces invaded Iran, were driven out, and Iran pressed the offensive onto Iraqi soil.  The US supported Iraq with intelligence regarding bombing targets and engaged the Iranian navy directly, including shooting down the civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, which the US claims was mistaken for a fighter jet.  The US military also supplied arms to the Iraqi military during the war, arms which it would then face against itself during the two Gulf Wars.  The government of Iraq is now pro-US, after two bloody US invasions of Iraq and a decade of even more deadly sectarian violence.

In the 2011 Arab Spring, protests broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrayn, and Syria.  Of the rulers challenged by these protests, President Zayn al-‘Abidin bin ‘Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen were US allies, despite their widely perceived autocratic and financially corrupt governments.  By contrast, the US opposed President Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.  The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were deposed, and their elected replacements came from Islamist anti-US parties, while when ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen finally stepped down, he was able to name a pro-US successor who was ratified by a popular referendum.  The US ally Bahrayn crushed the protests with support from another US ally, Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, the US-aided ousting of Gaddafi in 2011 has opened the door to Libyan factional fighting and provided an excuse for Russian and Chinese intransigence regarding the government of Bashar al-Assad, with whom President Obama recently announced that he has lost patience and will “start” supplying arms to the Syrian rebels.  The revelation this week that the CIA has already been supplying arms to and training the rebels since 2012 is hardly a surprise, as it is in keeping with the picture of covert CIA activities supporting American interests abroad.

I am not arguing that Bashar al-Assad is fine or Gaddafi was fine, or that the current president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, represents the “will of the Egyptian people” (there were election problems, including Morsi supporters violently intimidating people suspected of opposing Morsi, including Christians and liberals, in order to prevent them from voting at all).  I am arguing that US foreign policy and CIA operations have pursued a narrow and short-term definition of “American interests” which have destabilized and impoverished Middle Eastern countries involved and stoked anti-American sentiments there, ultimately to the detriment of longer-term American interests abroad.  An Eastern European recently said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”

In light of this perennial neglect of long-term interests, the US government needs to re-think its approach to the Middle East region as a whole.  The short-term “solutions” employed by the US to respond to current crises have only succeeded in creating another round of crises.  To take a particular current example, will US involvement in the Syrian Civil War against Bashar al-Assad actually create “a better Syria,” or will it simply supply arms to the next round of Middle Eastern forces that the US will then seek to dismantle five, ten, or thirty years down the road?  The only way to avoid perpetuating the cycle of crises generated by previous crises is to view Middle Easterners as people with their own interests, rather than solely as possible calculi in American interests abroad.  Unless Middle Easterners can be understood on their own terms, as people in their own right, the US will continue to “guess wrong” in its strategic initiatives in the region.  These faux pas, to put it mildly, result in continual loss of life both to Americans and especially to Middle Easterners, and must be stopped.

Lost: Moral Reasoning on Drone Attacks

Yesterday President Obama gave a speech defending drone strikes and “targeted killing” as part of a comprehensive defense strategy against terrorism (a full transcript of his speech is provided here).  Now, on political matters I’m not usually dogmatic, but here I must forcefully disagree with the President’s defense of “targeted killing” as presented in the speech.  I would not normally use this blog to advertise a disagreement over American policy, but since almost all drone strikes occur in the Middle East, policy decisions on that subject are immediately relevant to Middle East affairs and the perception of the US in the Middle East.

But let me first say that I applaud much of this speech.  President Obama rightly highlights the impact of ideas and the importance of doing what is right, both as an instrumental means of achieving national security and as a matter of consistency with the democratic and constitutional values of American governance.  Thus he said, “In an age in which ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.”  Even more directly, “Force alone cannot make us safe.”  And he highlighted the greater cost-effectiveness of foreign aid to give the lie to the notion that America is against Islam: the defense budget for foreign wars far exceeds the value of foreign aid, and yet foreign aid more effectively persuades real people that America is not evil, thus reducing the effectiveness of jihadi recruiting.  These are good things.

Nevertheless I do disagree with President Obama’s reasoning about drone strikes, even as some news sources present the President as seeming to argue with himself.  I will summarize my thoughts under three headings, moral arguments, legal arguments, and effectiveness arguments.  Although I recognize that there is widespread disagreement on the nature of moral reasoning, I do regard the moral arguments as both the most straightforward and the most important, and so today’s post will focus on the moral arguments, while the arguments from law and from effectiveness will await another day.  I also realize that in condemning all drone attacks outside of active battlefields, I am parting company with the majority of political voices in the US (whether red or blue) and the majority of legal experts.  That fact does not make me doubt the positions I argue for here.

Moral Arguments

It is conspicuous that President Obama raises the question of morality but does not adduce any moral reasoning in his speech.  He indicated that new technologies of warfare raise questions of morality, and later he said, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”  Thereafter he avoided all reference to morality except in two instances.  He asserted the moral obligation to carry out “targeted killings” through his statement, “I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki,” referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and Yemeni terrorist.  In the context he does not indicate which presidential duty he has in mind.  Finally, he asserted the dubious morality of alternatives to drone attacks: “So neither conventional military action, nor waiting for attacks to occur, offers moral safe-harbor.”  In the immediate context he was indicating that more civilians were killed by conventional military action than by drones, and that conventional military action exposes more American lives to danger.  It is conspicuous that this sentence is the only place where he alludes to “waiting for attacks to occur,” and he probably included it here only to give the illusion of considering all alternatives.  The reasoning seems to be that the alternatives to drone attacks are just as morally questionable as “targeted killing” itself, so get over the moral qualms.  This exhaustive summary of President Obama’s appeals to morality are why I must disagree with the Christian Science Monitor reporter who referred to “Obama’s moral arguments“; there were none.

Now, some people will argue that moral reasoning is impossible, either because (1) everyone knows deep down in their heart what is right and wrong, or (2) morality is merely a pious Victorian smokescreen for who you like and who you dislike (although it was that most affable and least sententious Victorian Oscar Wilde who put in the mouth of one of his villains, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.  You dislike me.  I am quite aware of that.  And I have always detested you.” — Mrs. Cheveley, An Ideal Husband, Act 2).  Yet the branch of philosophy identified as “ethics” challenges the presumption of inability to reason about moral matters (even if the divergence of opinions expressed will not give us much confidence in sophistic arguments, so I will keep my arguments simple).

Governments very rarely seem to appeal to the nearly universally recognized moral principle that it is obligatory to treat others as you would wish to be treated.  In the Christian tradition (which of course has no monopoly on the sentiment) the “golden rule” was expressed as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Most governments seem to operate by the modification in the style of Richard Rorty, “Do unto others what you can get away with,” and some have even adopted the dangerous principle, “Do unto others before they can do unto you!”

Now I do not believe that the golden rule is absolute in every instance, so I am not arguing that we should treat criminals and terrorists as we would want them to treat us (although I do think due process is morally obligatory).  But what about the many innocent people in the countries where drone strikes take place?  Raining death from the skies with impunity necessarily creates an environment of fear under which the people have no choice but to live.  This is a form of widespread psychological harm for which they are receiving no recompense.  The argument may be that these attacks only target terrorists, and their home countries are better off without them.  That may be so, but the attacks sometimes miss (and the so-called “signature strikes” target anyone who “acts like a terrorist,” which in the minds of many Americans would include direct religious profiling to target any Muslim who prays too often in a mosque!).  President Obama’s assertion that “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces” provides scant comfort to the people of areas where drone strikes occur.

Turning the tables can reveal the moral lapse beyond all of our clever self-justifications: how many Americans would appreciate it if a Russian drone flew in and killed an American while he was at home, even if it was a widely acknowledged extremist such as David Koresh?  Can you imagine the uproar if a Cuban fighter jet, without violating US airspace, destroyed a warehouse at Houston airport while flying over Mexico?  The fact that either of these scenarios is presently unlikely does not change the sense of outrage and personal affront which the American people would feel at the violation of our national sovereignty and domestic security.  These scenarios, and the real-life scenarios on which they are modeled, reveal the emptiness of appeals to “legitimate defense of national interests” when one country’s “national interests” conflict with another country’s “national interests.”  The moral discourse of rights can sound dangerously like it is might which makes them.

Obama asserted in his speech that drone strikes “are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty” (emphasis added), yet he acknowledged that “Any U.S. military action [including drone strikes] in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas.”  Speaking of the Special Forces raid which killed Osama bin Laden, he acknowledged that “the cost to our relationship with Pakistan [of the raid that killed bin Laden] – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.”  This acknowledgment also highlights the boldest lie uttered in the same speech: “Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world.”  Pakistan in particular has repeatedly and publicly objected to US drone strikes, even if the same government occasionally admits it has authorized strikes, and US-Pakistani relations have been very strained in the last few years.

The Pakistani people hear the government’s protests which seem to be ignored by the ruthless overseas aggressor, the US, and thus the drone strikes contribute, as one retired Air Force general put it, to “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.”  The point here is not about the effectiveness of the strikes (that issue will be addressed later), but that the Pakistani public clearly feels wronged by the drone campaign.  The fact that it is hard to imagine the US public not feeling even more violated and outraged if the tables were turned, including vocal demands for immediate military response against the country which sent the drone, reveals that this is a moral issue, and drones are on the wrong side of the moral calculus.  (The irony, of course, is that some of the most vocal supporters of the drone program in Washington today would be, if the tables were turned, some of the most strident voices calling for military response to a drone strike on US soil, but politicians have very rarely been noted for a strong moral compass.)

The US government, CIA, and military seem to feel that at present they can act with impunity in the drone program, because no one else has the capacity to send a drone to the US.  But this may change at any time.  The inability to be forcefully brought to account for an action does not mean it is morally legitimate, as Obama himself noted by his remark that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

A sharp distinction must of course be drawn between the use of unmanned aircraft in a battle situation and their use off the battle situation.  The use of unmanned aircraft in an active battle situation is clearly no more objectionable than the use of tanks (and although I am almost a pacifist, I am not convinced that war is the worst possible evil, and so I believe there are situations in which tanks and battles on one side can be justified).  As several commentators have remarked, the use of targeted killings in the “War on Terror” treat the entire world as a constant battlefield, and various voices have called upon the President of the United States to repudiate the “global battlefield” doctrine.

I think ridicule might be a more effective approach: everyone knows that the whole world is not a battlefield all of the time.  Although the locations of battles of the “War on Terror” are difficult to predict, they are not everywhere all the time, and it is sheer idiocy or willful neglect of reality to believe otherwise.  Any particular place may become a battlefield, but it does so precisely when some party initiates violence there, as happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last month, and happens every time a drone strike attacks someone who is not actively committing violence.  Note that it is the drone strike which transforms a place into a battlefield which was not a battlefield before.  Plans to commit violence do not make a battlefield (as all army generals know, as they usually wish to avoid seeing direct combat), and surprise attacks as often as not will catch terrorists thinking about the weather and their worries about their social standing (provided the drone strike is actually targeting terrorists and not merely people having a social gathering).

My conclusion is therefore that drone strikes are always immoral when not used in a context of active combat between opposing armies.  This seems to be readily apparent to everyone who has been nearby a drone strike, or where a drone strike is thought a real possibility.  The obfuscation of this moral point to those who defend the “targeted killing” approach is merely a result of humans’ universal ability to fully exonerate themselves in their pursuit of their desires, whatever they happen to be.  On the moral scale, yesterday’s speech by President Obama (although admirable at many other points) was simply bankrupt.