Tell me again why someone as stupidly wrong as Nick Kristof gets a column in the New York Times? Oh, right — the question answers itself. Let’s see what Nick is up to today as he continues to report from Yemen.
Want to buy a submachine gun?
What I really want is a grenade launcher mounted on one of those giant lifter things like Sigorney Weaver used to kill the momma monster at the end of Aliens, but I’ll take what I can get.
This little market town in the wild, wild north of Yemen has more than 50 shops selling all kinds of toys for boys. A used Uzi goes for $170, a machine pistol with silencer is $350, and a brand-new AK-47 assault rifle goes for nearly $400.
Grenades are $4 each. An antitank mine is $22. A rocket-propelled grenade launcher is $500. An arms merchant I met here might even be able to find you an antiaircraft gun or a tank. No sales tax.
How very wonderfully Heinleinian. Something tells me, though, that Nick isn’t going to use this as a fun, upbeat example of how an armed society is a polite society. Although I bet he watched his big mouth for once.
This is Yemen, where we’re preparing to send American soldiers to open a new front in the war on terrorism. I admire the instinct of trying to boost security here, but the bottom line is that we’re going to send our troops on a poorly defined mission into a country where they’re not wanted, where grenades cost $4 each.
As opposed to the tranquil pacifism of Afghanistan, where the most anyone was ever armed with was a hug? Nick, you’re going to have to do a lot better than that. Afghanistan was more remote than Yemen — and had been given arms over the last 22 years by the USSR, the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and most anyone else who came by.
Oh, and in case you thought we were really stupid, let’s state for the record that we know four dollars is a lot more in Yemen than it is here. I hate it when people assume we’re stupid and uninformed.
The plan is for the Americans to train Yemeni troops. But the Yemen government’s main problem in controlling terrorism is not that soldiers are poorly trained. Instead it is that for reasons of history, culture and tribal politics, the central government doesn’t entirely control the hinterlands.
Congrats, Nicky. You’ve just successfully described every Third World nation, including some in our own hemisphere. Such as Canada. Seriously though, name one poor nation that fully controls much outside the capital city. Time’s up. You lose.
Americans who gripe about big government and high taxes, who believe the state that governs best governs least, would love Yemen. The central government controls the beautiful old capital, Sana, and a chunk of turf to its south and west. Beyond that is a delicate balancing act with local sheiks.
Now there’s the cheapest, most poorly built straw man I’ve seen in ages. Don’t you have editors on that fancy op-ed page of yours? What you’re describing is anarchy. What a small government does is enforce a few necessary laws completely, but leaves the people otherwise free to their own pursuits. Such as bad journalism.
As for the rest of that last graf, it’s just a restatement of fact from the previous graf, only this time with a tiny amount of local color. Again, Nick could be desrcibing most any Third World nation. Just replace “Sana” with “Kabul” and “sheiks” with “tribes.” Yawn.
When I wanted to come up here into northern Yemen, I took an escort from the government including, for one stretch of road, a pickup truck loaded with seven soldiers and a heavy machine gun mounted in back. But more important, to avoid kidnapping (Yemen’s favorite sport) it was prudent to get invitations from the leading sheiks.
“No one will pay attention to the government escort,” a wise Yemeni explained to me. “But if you’re invited by the sheiks, they won’t dare bother you. They’ll be afraid of retaliation from the sheiks.”
We all saw the same scene in The Godfather Part I, Nicky, when Pacino was hiding out in Sicily. We’re not impressed.
The frailty of the government’s authority was underscored on the road north, when we were stopped at a roadblock by a group of men with assault rifles. It was Yemeni code: a stick across the road means you stop, or you get your tires shot out.
It can also mean there was a bad thunderstorm the night before, which can lead to some real traffic snarls during the rainy season, as everyone stops and waits for gunmen who aren’t there. Well, it would if there were any cars in Yemen’s backcountry. They can’t afford an old clunker Land Rover Poverty III, and we’re supposed to worry about $4 grenades?
It turned out that one of the men at the roadblock was owed money by a man of another tribe. So they were stopping all traffic to look for a car driven by any member of that other tribe: they planned to confiscate the car and keep it until the money was repaid. There were no police or army units to keep the road open, and the roadblock would remain until either the tribesmen got their car or the debt was paid.
Damn! It’s a morass! It’s a quagmire! 227 years and twenty-someodd wars, our Army has never effectively learned how to deal with a roadblock. Our fuckin’ useless State Department could deal with this thing, just by writing them a check. They want money, Kristof. And say what you will about America, we’re even better at making money than we are at kicking ass.
Vice President Dick Cheney dropped in on Yemen last week, for a useful show of support