Friday, January 08, 2010

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 clich├ęs: 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.

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