Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama end of year report: B -

Multilateralism: B-

IPS, Fpif,

January 27, 2010 · By Ian Williams
The Obama administration is UN-friendly. So why hasn't it made more of a push to bring the United States into compliance with international conventions?

obamaUnderstandably preoccupied the economic crisis and health care reform, the Obama administration has failed to deliver on the multilateral front. Still awaiting signatures and ratification are the Law of the Sea (wanted by the Pentagon), the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (crucial to the administration's nonproliferation policy), the Conventions on Land Mines and Child Soldiers (both popular with Obama's base), and, of course, the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Law of the Sea is crucial for American claims in the rapidly defrosting Arctic and is such low-hanging fruit that only an exclusive concern with local politics can explain the failure to ratify it. In the case of the ICC, the administration did send a delegation to the recent meeting of states party. That is progress of a sort. But this approach simply returns the United States to the Clintonesque position of non-inhalation, going with the flow but not taking any actual risks. The muted reaction from the blogosphere suggests that those who could once have been whipped into patriotic indignation about U.S. accession to the ICC are too busy teabagging.

At the same time, the Obama administration has aligned the United States publically with the United Nations and its surrounding multilateral structures. In one of the few concrete steps it's taken, Congress honored the White House request to pay U.S. arrears to the UN for the first time in 30 years. Admittedly, Washington still pays nine months in arrears, and there are huge debts for peacekeeping contributions. But the payments are a big step forward from when any dyspeptic legislator with a grudge against the world could use the UN as a whipping boy.

Congress might try again to starve and beat the UN into submission, but the Obama administration shows few signs of doing so. Indeed, freed from a perennial anxiety about the budget and the once-vindictive attention Washington formerly paid to the UN secretariat, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has become more forthright and principled.

Now Ban Ki-Moon has a real opportunity. Whether we like it or not, a UN without the active support of the world's superpower, albeit a declining one, is simply not effective. And insofar as declining superpowers have more need of multilateral support, the United States has a rational self-interest in supporting the organization. Obama's public commitment to multilateral principles allows the secretary-general to restate them more forcefully.

However, the pinch will come, just as it did during the Reagan years, on the Middle East. It was not gratifying to see Obama appointees eating — even if they did not entirely swallow — their previous words on international justice when it came to the Goldstone Report. Obama has not used previous UN resolutions on the Middle East, nor the possibility of future Security Council decisions, to prod the maverick Netanyahu back onto the trail laid down by the road map for peace. On the other hand, his administration hasn't "punished" Ban Ki-Moon for his increasingly forthright statements about Gaza — perhaps because U.S officials have been saying similar things, albeit less strenuously.

The Obama administration has endorsed the Arab League plan and its references to the UN-sanctioned borders from 1967, but it's hardly been assiduous in pressuring Israel to accept them, let alone the road map. Until it does, the world's jury will remain out on whether the United States has truly re-subscribed to the principles of the organization that it played such a large role in founding. But Obama can still deal with those outstanding international conventions, notably the Law of the Sea, while he still has a Senate majority, thereby reassuring to the world that progress is being maintained. Even if the Massachusetts election result gives him an excuse for failure, it's no excuse for not trying.
Ian Williams

Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit

Friday, January 22, 2010

Faster than the USS Liberty compensation

'Reimbursement', not justice

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 22 January 2010

Israel has confirmed to the United Nations that it is agreeing to pay $10.5 million for the 15 January 2009 destruction of UN premises in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Most of the payment goes to UNRWA, with a few hundred thousand dollars for the office of the UN Special Coordinator for the peace process, whose facilities were also trashed in an act redolent with symbolism.

At Israeli insistence, the payment is scrupulously described as ‘reimbursement’ for the ruined supplies and facilities. Since UNRWA is a voluntarily funded agency, not paid for from the UN general assessment, the ‘reimbursement’ is as much a gesture to the donor countries who have shown increasing restiveness at seeing their aid to the Palestinians regularly destroyed by the IDF, as it is to the UN – although relations between Ehud Barak and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are perhaps more important.

Specifically excluded from the payment (carefully not labelled ‘compensation’, let alone ‘reparation’) is any money for human victims of the tragedy. Some Israelis now admit that ‘mistakes’ were made, but the Board of Inquiry, set up by Ban Ki-moon and headed by Ian Martin, a respected human rights figure, concluded that the action was part of a pattern of attacks on UN premises, schools, hospitals and warehouses.

The ‘reimbursement’ also excludes any admission of guilt by Israel: it is not to set a precedent. Indeed, it is unprecedented. It took 14 years for Israel to pay $6 million to compensate the US Navy for damage to the USS Liberty in 1967. Furthermore, Israel has not, as far as we know, compensated the Overseas Private Investment Corp, a US government-backed fund, for the $48 million owed to the Connecticut-based Morganti Group for its share of the Gaza power plant bombed by the Israelis in 2006. Nor has it compensated the European Union, whose members have been uncommonly vociferous about the costs of regular IDF flattening of their expensive aid projects.

Last January, Ban Ki-moon came, saw and was disgusted with the results of the Israeli attack and has persevered when previous UN chiefs have, in effect, let the IDF get away with successive horrors – just think of the recidivist shelling of UNIFIL’s outpost at Qana in 1996. His persistence, and relationship with Barak, the good cop of current Israeli foreign affairs compared with the Lieberman/Ayalon team officially holding the foreign portfolio, delivered the deal.
Special relationship

Barak immediately apologised to Ban for the destruction, which involved phosphorus shells. The secretary-general reported at the time: “The defence minister said to me it was a grave mistake and he took it very seriously. He assured me that extra attention will be paid to UN facilities and staff, and this will not be repeated.” Ban’s indignation was compounded because he was actually in Israel trying to secure a ceasefire when the UN premises were attacked. He could have been forgiven for thinking that someone in the IDF was trying to send him a message, not least when, as he soon complained, Israeli forces went ahead and carried out more such actions.

Barak and his ilk seem to have pushed the ‘reimbursement’ deal through. They are concerned at the erosion of the new special relationship between Israel and this UN administration. At one time, Israeli governments could rely on Washington to do the heavy lifting to bludgeon the international organisation into taciturn acquiescence. But the Obama administration, with its own issues with Netanyahu, cannot be relied upon to the same extent, so Israel has to do its own bilateral stroking.

But the greatest leverage for the UN was the detailed 184-page report of the Board of Inquiry led by Ian Martin, former special representative in East Timor. Reporting back to Ban last May, he concluded “that IDF actions involved varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries, and extensive physical damage and loss of property.” The report also called for compensation for damage to property, which was promptly endorsed by Ban.

Only a 27-page summary was published and the full report has been kept confidential. It is likely to be buried even more deeply as part of the deal. Almost certainly, Israel’s fear is that the details in there would add to the growing prospects of international criminal charges against Israeli personnel. The book was closed on using the Martin report as the basis for any further action.

The report is not being greeted as a triumph by local UN staff, who look with an understandably jaundiced eye at the damage Israel has done in Gaza. Ban may have achieved more than anyone else before in getting compensation, but many local employees, ruefully contemplating the death of colleagues and the people whose welfare they are charged to maintain, complain that it is at the cost of justice.

A Dog and Tail Tale

Washington lobbies' Israel-Turkey reality check

From Ian Williams
Passionate Detachment column Middle East International 22 January 2010

It might not be a change of the tide, but the ham-fisted Israeli foreign ministerial team has certainly revealed the shift in the currents of regional and international politics.
The petty triumph of calling in Ambassador Oğuz Çelikkol for a reprimand, as if he or the Turkish government controlled programming on Turkish TV, might have played well for the right in Israel, but the affair also said much about Ankara’s changing relationship with both Israel and the United States.

The brusque Turkish demand for an Israeli apology, following Ankara’s refusal to assist in the US invasion of Iraq or to countenance operations through its airspace to Iran, is the latest indication of a coming of age for Turkey and a new climate in global relations. The government in Ankara can base policies on popular support without worrying too much about uppity allies like the US, let alone Israel – or for that matter those parts of its own military with too much invested in those alliances.

For many years, Turkey needed Washington: as a military backstop against the Soviets, and indeed the Syrians and Iraqis, with whom there were old border issues. The US connection also helped to restrain the Greeks, for whom politics was, all too often, about how to annoy their eastern neighbour. A military relationship with Israel was strategically useful for Turkey when Syria or Iraq were a threat, but possibly more useful was the prospect of using the leverage of the Israel lobby in Washington.

In the peculiar Washington waltz of lobbies, Israel’s efforts on behalf of Turkey were countered by the Armenian expatriate lobby, the Greek lobby and a range of human rights organisations who generally took a dim view of Ankara’s policies. That was apparent when AIPAC had a clutch of Senators ‘unsign’ Bob Dole’s resolution on the 75th anniversary of the ‘Armenian Genocide’.

That was an earlier and possibly slightly more sophisticated version of Israel getting above itself than the current situation. It was because of this overreach that Dole became a firm and dedicated supporter of Bush and Baker’s campaign to stop Israel getting the $10 billion loan guarantees that Shamir wanted to resettle Russian immigrants – such as Lieberman and Ayalon.

On this occasion, who needs whom more? Turkey is a growing regional power, military and economic. It is on friendly terms with its neighbours and has gone some way to smooth over some of its more intractable problems – like teaming up with Russia to sign a peace treaty with Armenia. It has tried to broker peace between Syria and Israel – and finds the latter more at fault for the failure.

Turkey’s relationship with the EU is growing more important economically and politically than its ties to the US, whose shrinking superpower status has become more visible than ever. Neo-con overreach has made obvious the limitations of American military power, while the economic crisis has reduced US financial clout to its lowest ebb since 1945. Israel had some significance in its own right, but not nearly as much as it had as a means of influence in Washington. If Turkey does not have as much need of the US as before, it follows that there are fewer advantages to courting Israel than before.

Lieberman and Ayalon should be congratulated for their part in bursting the bubble. Not only is the US less important to Turkey and the Israel lobby less important than it was, but the two clowns have given a clear indication of why, with diehard exceptions like Joseph Lieberman, Israel supporters in Washington will no longer take their line verbatim from the Israeli government.

In real terms, the US has more to gain from a relationship with a regional power such as Turkey than with an Israel, for which support comes at such a heavy financial and diplomatic price across the world. Obama won’t rush to do an Erdoğan just yet, but even Washington lobbies can’t keep reality at bay forever.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Downsizing Intelligence

Ian Williams: Ignorant intelligence and self-fulfilling prophecies
January 15, 2010 Tribune

Since Christmas Day, everyone in the United States knows that the cricket-box bomber visited Yemen. Luckily for Gordon Brown, the suspicion directed towards Yemen has not touched on Britain, even though the would-be auto-castrato, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, spent more time in London than there.

The US reaction began as typically reflexive, with little in the way of reflection. “Stop the release of Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.” “It’s all Barack Obama’s fault.” The Pentagon chipped in with vague and unsourced reports that a fifth of released internees have “rejoined the militant activity” – as unspecified as the names or countries. In the fevered Islamophobic imagination that the Pentagon has displayed over the decade, regular attendance at a mosque and refusal to eat eggs and bacon for breakfast could count as militant activity.

I cannot be the only person who suspects that kidnapping, incarcerating, torturing and humiliating people for years without trial might leave them with a monstrous grudge against their tormentors, eager to get payback for those wasted years.

However, there is little sense of that in the American media and even less awareness that US support for Israel gives the bulk of the ideological leverage for the preachers who incite the likes of Abdulmutallab to deeds that go so squarely against basic human impulses.

For the media, Yemen was the problem. And it presented a tempting target for a vindictive response, helped along because the government in Sana’a had been playing up alleged Iranian and al Qaida connections to the numerous dissident groups in the country. It says a lot about US ignorance that, after all these years, so many politicians and commentators have still not noticed that the Wahhabi al Qaida actually hates Shi’a Iran – or even that, without tacit Iranian co-operation, Western forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan would be even harder pressed.

In the same vein, adding Cubans, Syrians, Iranians, Nigerians and Yemenis to the list of those who need extra scrutiny and greater humiliation at airports shows more than a hint of going after the “usual suspects”, regardless of what would be more rational. The Cubans have indeed been involved in aircraft bombings – it’s just that it was a Cuban flight blown up by an exile the US refused to extradite.

When ignorant intelligence goes to war hand in hand with such galloping prejudices, the consequences of a massive American incursion into a complex and variegated society such as Yemen would be unimaginable – if it were not that we have actually seen the results in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nothing could be more calculated to turn Hillary Clinton’s words about Yemen becoming a regional and global threat into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If they but knew it, Yemen is an American conservative dream. It’s a shame they aren’t evangelical Christians or the Republican Party would be holding it up as a model state. It has very little government, while weaponry is everywhere.

I have a treasured photograph of me on a visit to Yemen in a shooting competition with a provincial governor, which could either get me the National Rifle Association vote if I ran in an American election or hauled off as a terrorist suspect, depending on the volatile popular mood.

On the same trip, I could not help noticing that the neo-liberal consensus on downsizing government was over-fulfilling the plan in Sana’a. Not a minister I was introduced to was over five feet tall. The Gulliver-like feeling was reinforced by the tiny doorways on the magnificent old buildings that left me with near-concussion every time I forgot to duck.

In the other sense also, Yemeni government was very small. Not far from the capital, villagers paraded with AK47s on their shoulders and jambiyahs – the phallic knives – jutted from the centre of their belts.

The provincial governor, who took us out to see them, had his own guard, but the demonstration was peaceful. It was the boys and girls of the vicinity lined up with their school books held in front of them. The villagers wanted more funds for the school.

At that time, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was allowing reasonably open elections – and such constitutional methods worked. Since then, he has consolidated his hold on power and money has tended to stick in his vicinity.

Gordon Brown seems to be working on the right lines in seeing economic and institutional development as one of the keys for helping Yemen constitute a stronger and more cohesive society – not to mention a police rather than a military solution to terrorism.

He even seems to have influenced the Americans to hold off on the bombers – although that could be because they can’t find a pharmaceutical factory to destroy, as Bill Clinton did in Sudan – and the demands on the overstretched US military constrain any attempt to send in the marines.

There will always be fanatical religious figures – evangelical ministers, die-hard rabbis and bloodthirsty imams – but as long as the West condones and in effect supports Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank and apartheid-like behaviour towards the Palestinians, then the latter will continue to recruit dupes to die for them.

Brown’s conference on Yemen is important, but it is a sideshow to George Mitchell’s mission to Israel. And unless Obama stops the cheques and votes going to Benjamin Netanyahu, Mitchell will fail and the bombers will succeed.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Richard Goldstone Interview

The NS Interview: Richard Goldstone

Ian Williams

Published 30 December 2009 New Statesman

“I’m certainly a friend of Israel – I don’t mind being called a Zionist”

You served as a judge under apartheid in South Africa. How difficult was it to fulfil that role?
I wouldn't have accepted an appointment if human rights lawyers hadn't already begun to use the courts to establish rights for black South Africans. People like John Didcott, a leading anti-apartheid campaigner who went on the bench in the Natal region and blazed a trail there, encouraged me. There were already decisions knocking holes in the oppressive system.

Did those campaigners invoke international law or rely on domestic law?
International law was relevant, but Roman-Dutch common law was very egalitarian, and the apartheid legislation overlaid it, so there were gaps where the common law came through. Apartheid legislators liked to use benign words in their statutes, hoping the judges would know how to interpret them, so there were large areas where one could interpret the law in a way that was less oppressive. Later I chaired the Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation, which exposed illegal behaviour even under apartheid.

South Africa is still your home. Do you feel the government has lived up to early expectations?
South Africa, for all its problems, has been a tremendous success. But expectations were unrealistically high. It will take decades, generations, to overcome the heritage of 350 years of racial oppression. It's going in a good direction.

You were prosecutor at the Yugoslav Tribunal. Was it an example of victors' justice?
Nuremberg was victors' justice, but The Hague certainly wasn't. It was anything but. It was an international court, and none of the judges involved had an interest.

There were accusations that a quota from each side was prosecuted to prove impartiality.
There was definitely pressure in that direction, but I did not succumb to it. In my book, being even-handed means treating similar crimes
similarly. So if - on a scale of one to ten, with ten the most serious - we were prosecuting crimes by the Serbs rated ten, it was not appropriate to go after ones or twos committed by Bosniaks.

How important was the tribunal?
It was hugely significant: the first truly international, as opposed to multinational, court. It was part of a very welcome development in international law, which has been progressively removing impunity from war criminals.

Were the Yugoslav and the Rwanda tribunals a flash in the pan?
Not at all. They gave rise to the International Criminal Court, supported by 110 nations - admittedly not some of the most powerful, such as Russia and the US, but that will change. The movement is in one direction. Just recently, for the first time in eight years, the US was an observer at the meetings of states party to the ICC.

There are still furious debates about the Kosovo intervention. What's your assessment?
I chaired the International Commission on Kosovo. We came to a unanimous conclusion -
I suppose an oxymoron - that the Nato intervention was illegal but legitimate. Russia tried to get the Security Council to condemn the Ko­sovo intervention but lost by 12 votes to three. It was an after-the-fact acceptance of what happened. That led to the Canadian inquiry, which developed into the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, which has in turn become soft law.

Some who criticised your support for Nato now cheer the Gaza report. What about accusations that it was biased against Israel?
The original mandate was biased, but the president of the Human Rights Council agreed with me to change it. As with Rwanda and Yugosla­via, we investigated all sides.

Were you apprehensive taking it on?
Of course! The Middle East is not the easiest part of the world, but I assumed, perhaps naively, that because of the even-handed mandate, Israel would co-operate. Obviously I was really saddened when they refused.

You've been described as a friend of Israel, a Zionist. Is that accurate?
I'm certainly a friend of Israel. I don't mind being called a Zionist; it depends on the definition.
Perhaps that's why you weren't criticised to begin with. Then the floodgates opened . . .
There has definitely been a consistent effort to attack the messenger rather than read the report. Clearly, personal attacks have been unpleasant for me, and unpleasant for my family.

Where do you see the Gaza debate going now?
I hate prophesying. I really do not know how it will go, but the report seems to have gained its own momentum.

How has the new era of accountability for war crimes changed the landscape?
Impunity, generally speaking, has come to an end - I don't think there's any person today accused of committing international crimes who can feel happy travelling. That in itself, if not a complete success, must act as a deterrent.

Underpants, Yemen and Obama

Yemen crisis set to test Obama's acumen

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 8th January

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his sponsors, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, may have failed to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day with their novelty exploding underwear, but they certainly put truth in all the usual clichés: the sound of empty stable doors slamming shut being drowned out by the chatter of chickens coming home to roost.

The device, with its triggering syringe, was sewn into Abdulmutallab’s underpants, which bespeaks an indoctrination grim enough to over-ride one of the most basic male instincts. It also implies that future airline passengers are going to be subject to even more humiliating and intrusive searches than before, and as the US announced on 4 January, passengers from 14 selected countries (including Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) will be singled out for even more of that treatment than other travellers.

In fact, that random selection of 14 targeted countries is ominously suggestive that this particular self-appointed franchise of al-Qa’ida has a firm grasp of the main principle: to provoke a Western response that will substantiate their feverish tales of Western Islamophobia. The Obama reaction to Yemen, where Abdulmutallab received some of his training and preparations, will indicate just how successful they have been.

Usual suspects
Hillary Clinton declared that instability in Yemen is not just a regional but also a global threat. Sadly it is a small, far-away country of which most Americans know nothing. On 4 January The Wall St Journal inadvertently epitomised that. It carried a picture of Yemeni troops checking a passing car. It did not notice their bulging cheeks, which were stuffed like hamster’s jowls with qat. One does not need to be too censorious to wonder whether a qat habit is truly conducive to alertness. But then the idea that US intelligence is at work there fixing targets is almost as worrying. Small, faraway countries are expendable in wars against abstractions, be they drugs or terror.

For example, putting Nigeria on the list of 14 countries whose citizens are singled out for heightened scrutiny suggests a panic response. It might have been Abdulmuttallab’s birthplace, but his father also lives there – and he had alerted the CIA about his son’s suspicious activities. The CIA in turn failed to tell the FBI and other agencies. It seems highly probable that the failed suicide bomber had picked up his bad habits in London where he studies, as, of course did Richard Reid, the British ‘shoe-bomber’. Britain is, needless to say, not on the hastily rushed-out list of suspicious countries, but Cuba and Iran are, both of which are more sinned against than sinning in the matter of blowing airliners out of the sky. And while putting Usama Bin-Laden’s Saudi Arabia on the list seems appropriate, hoisting up the thobs on thousands of Saudi princes at airports could lead to some interesting social and political repercussions.

The US reaction is straight out of Casablanca. In response to a Republican outcry, the administration issues an order to round up the usual suspects. In furtherance of the partisan attacks on Obama, the opposition treated the attempted bombing as a consequence of liberal invertebracy. The genuine intelligence failures were certainly less disastrous than those under the Bush administration that led to 9/11, but the Republicans have always benefited from a very short attention span in the American media – and from a failure by Democrats to challenge their preposterous presumptions.

Possible military action?
As a result, the Obama administration is teetering on the brink of breaking the first rule of surgical intervention: first, do no harm. It is also on the verge of breaking a rule so obvious that Hippocrates never had to state it: don’t use a hatchet instead of a scalpel. How long can the White House resist the pressure to ‘do something’, from bombing a misidentified factory (as in Sudan) at one end of the scale, to invading a country (as in Iraq) at the other?

At least the Obama administration appears to be holding firm on closing Guantanamo, but it faces its own nominal ally in Joseph Lieberman demanding that because a Nigerian tried to blow up a plane, no interned Yemenis be released, whether or not they have any evidence against them. Despite his threatened treachery on Obama’s healthcare bill, the senator is still the Chair of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee and, as one of AIPAC’s most cherished assets, epitomises the rush to let lobbies and prejudices shape responses to foreign affairs.

So far, the US has not unleashed the full and counterproductive armoury of hi-tech weaponry on Yemen, although it has begun to move in that direction. It had the excuse that, before the bombing, Sana’a showed every sign of trying to enlist US support to bolster its weak internal standing. The Yemeni government had been trying for some time to make unlikely associations between Iran and the Houthis in the north, and between the secessionists and al-Qa’ida in the south. Needless to say, these linkages could provoke legislative reflexes in Washington, where Yemen is being depicted as a failed state. This is a little unfair, since as a state it has hardly been tried. Sana’a is more a PO box for the dwindling oil revenues and the foreign aid cheques that the government hopes will be boosted by recent events. It is those resources that much of the factionalism is about.

However, a few more drones crashing into ‘guilty’ villages and a heavy US presence on the ground, or even in control, could succeed in uniting Yemen’s fractious tribes and factions like nothing else. The regime in Sana’a seems to be realising that danger, but could face heavy US pressure – unless Obama shows some of the sensitivity and acumen for which he was elected.

Yemen: maybe not deja vue all over again...

US hand stayed - for now
By Ian Williams

Asia Times 9 Jan 2010

WASHINGTON - From Mexico to Iraq, we can see the practical consequences of "wars" against abstractions, whether drugs or terror. In Yemen, there are signs that both President Ali Abdallah Saleh's government and the Barack Obama administration are drawing back from repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan, and perhaps even of Somalia.

Indeed, it is worth comparing Somalia with Yemen. In traditional Western terms, Somalia should have been almost the most successful state in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its population was homogenous in religion, language and culture, with a strong sense of identity. But what outsiders did not realize was how much clan diversity there was beneath that seeming unity. What looked like strong central government under Siad Barre, the last

effective national president, looked like a monopolization of resources by one group to all the other clans. Since then, no putative national government has been able to come up with an offer that the various parties cannot easily refuse.

Just across the mouth of the Red Sea, in Yemen, there are even more crosscutting fault lines. There is a Zaidi/Sunni divide, there are the divisions between the north and the former Marxist People's Democratic Republic in the south, which are not so much ideological as based on Saleh's government cutting the former leadership down there from the access to power and wealth that they thought the reunification of 1990 entitled them.

In the north, in Saada province, the Houthi tribe used to provide the emirs for the thousand-year dynasty in what is now the capital, Sana'a, and now feel excluded. Because they are Zaidi, and therefore technically Shi'ite, opportunistic Yemeni officials linked them with Iran, thereby encouraging Saudi and American support for the central government. Yet they are no closer to Iranian Shi'ites than Anglicans in Britain are to American Pentecostalists, even if both are technically Protestants. But since they are Shi'ite, they are anathema to the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and their al-Qaeda offshoot.

In the mountains, the various clans happily ignore the central government, and some of them seem to be tolerating, at least, al-Qaeda, quite likely for a mixture of financial and theological reasons.

The Yemeni government has always been weak and decentralized, dependent on mediating the demands of the clans and localities whose physical isolation is reinforced by the national habit of weapon-bearing. Yemen is the National Rifle Association's paradise on Earth, and most men would consider themselves naked without their jambiyas, the knife stuck in the belt.

Much of the recent internal conflict is about distribution of scarce resources. Yemen is a desperately poor country, whose poverty has not been helped by frequent civil wars and which was enhanced even more when Yemen's envoy voted in the United Nations Security Council against resolutions authorizing the 1990-1991 Desert Storm after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

United States diplomats told the Yemeni envoy at the time that this was the most expensive vote he'd ever cast, and for once, an American prediction came true. Saudi Arabia expelled hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers whose remittances had kept the economy afloat, and foreign aid shrank even more. Needless to say, Saddam Hussein's gratitude was strictly limited.

Things have improved now. Saudi Arabia and Yemen finally broadly agreed their long-disputed frontier in 2000, even though it did not restore the former privileged position of Yemeni workers in the kingdom.

However, the oil revenue which provided much of the central government's funding has been declining, and foreign aid has not been expanding, even if the post-1991 boycott is no longer in effect. However, the nepotism and corruption of the Saleh government, now in power for three decades, has taken a visibly disproportionate share of what there is left, and has provoked widespread agitation from those left out.

The main industry and commerce is the growth, distribution and mastication of qat, which takes a huge amount of land and water and anything up to a third of personal income. (Qat is a tropical evergreen plant whose leaves are used as a stimulant.)

On its positive side, the cultivation of a cash crop so lucrative that fields have armed guards has also, according to some economists, been a means of transferring wealth to the countryside and absorbing the deported workers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

At first, when the government faced widespread dissent, it seemed to have seen an opportunity. By characterizing all the dissident groups as Iranian or al-Qaeda-influenced, they effectively rang the right bells in Riyadh and Washington, and hoped for military and financial aid.

Since the abortive Christmas Day bombing of the North West Airlines flight by a Nigerian linked to al-Qaeda and Yemen, both sides seem to have drawn back. The Yemenis who had been canvassing for heavy weaponry that would allow them to defeat all their various rebels seem to have realized that if they wanted to put truth in the rumors about al-Qaeda being behind them, all they had to do was get too close to the US and West - as in fact they had already shown signs of doing with bombing raids.

Any visible intervention by the US could unify Yemen like nothing else - against the invader. The same thought seems to be occurring in Washington, despite the apocalyptic language from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the Yemeni situation being a regional and global threat. Support for police units has already been announced, and the international meeting that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has convened (with American and Saudi support) for the end of the month seems based on the premise that economic, social and political development are crucial to hold the country together and dampen the various conflicts.

It is not so much that Yemen is a failed state, but as Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi one said when asked what he thought about Western civilization, a functioning state would be a good idea. There are unlikely to be any quick and easy answers, but it could be that the right questions are being asked this time. If there is to be a war in Yemen against abstractions, it should be against tangible and real abstractions: poverty and one of its causes, corruption.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

For action by those concerned with media freedoms

Message from Japanese journalist Toshikuni DOI:

Israel began its military attacks on Gaza on the 27th of December 2008.
On its first anniversary, I made up my mind to protest officially
against the restrictions on my reporting imposed by the Israeli
government. The protest is not against media control in general but is
motivated by restrictions on my activities as a journalist. Since last
summer, the Israeli government has refused to issue a press
card to me on two occasions, which has eliminated the chances of my
covering stories in Gaza. This, however, concerns not only myself but
all other journalists who are interested in reporting on Palestine.

If you can agree to the following protest, please write to me at the
following address. I will list your name with your occupation as
someone who endorses it.

You may be cited as for example: Toshikuni Doi (journalist)

And please let other people learn about this protest. Please spread the
news to your friends, to someone you know, and particularly to media
people, journalists, and human rights organizations.

I thank you in advance for your support.

Toshikuni Doi
Dec. 29, 2009