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.

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