A Tale of Two Yemens


Tanks seized recently by militiamen loyal to Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi take positions on Tuesday at the al-Anad air base in the southern province of Lahej, 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Aden, Yemen. (AP Photo/Wael Qubady)

Here’s Politico’s Adam Baron, more or less parroting the Administration’s Pravda on the situation in Yemen:

The truth is far more complex, and the solution right now should be more along the lines of: Just stay out of it. While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.

The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.

“It’s five PM; please don’t threaten to push me closer to cocktails.”

I trust you see where I’m going with this.

When Iranian-backed rebels have forced a country’s president to flee by boat, presumably because air travel is too dangerous or even impossible, it’s fair to say that the country has already imploded.

Now it is true that Yemen’s troubles are mostly local and deeply rooted — it was actually two countries as recently as 1990, and the marriage has never been a happy one. North Yemen was the southern tip of the old Ottoman Empire and its people are generally more religious, despite flirting with Arab nationalism in the ’60s and ’70s. South Yemen was a British protectorate before independence in the ’60s, and was secular enough to put the Communists in power. Even on its own, South Yemen wasn’t much of a country. In reality it wasn’t much more than the wealthy city of Aden lording it over poor hicks in the sticks.

So, yes, like pretty much all of the post-colonial Arab world, Yemen is several bags of hurt shoved together into a bigger bag of hurt.

But you know what? Libya’s troubles were mostly local, too, and now that country is also a playground for ISIS and al Qaeda — in no small part because we dealt Death from Above while strenuously avoiding Boots on the Ground. To varying degrees, that’s also been administration policy in Iraq and in Yemen, and both places imploded. Both countries are also now battlegrounds between Iran and ISIS — at a time when Obama requires Iran’s cooperation to put together a nuclear deal to seal his foreign policy legacy. If you think that’s nuts, it gets worse. The U.S. Air Force is now hitting targets in Tikrit to aid the Iranian-led Iraqi Shi’ite forces trying to retake that Sunni city, while our Sunni Saudi allies, using American intelligence aid, are launching air strikes against Iranian-led Shi’ite Houthi forces in Yemen.

What is the enemy of our enemy of our enemy, anyway? “You’re either with us or against us” seems so very long ago and far away.

Anyway, Baron’s point was supposed to be “foreign intervention in a local fight would be the worst course anyone could take.” But with U.S. forces fleeing, and Iranian and Saudi forces fighting over the corpse of what was once our ally, then “avoiding foreign intervention” is something of a moot point, yes? Trying to keep this fight local is akin to locking the barn door after the horse has been slaughtered and the barn set on fire.

But enough of Politico Magazine, which we learned yesterday is a paid-for Washington favorite — and I guess for good reason. Instead, let’s go to The Daily Beast, where Shane Harris and Tim Mak present a more honest assessment:

“It’s a big setback,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer with extensive experience in the Middle East, said of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Yemen, which now more than ever seems in the grips of an outright civil war. “Without both a U.S. presence on the ground or a reliable ally, it will be much more difficult to target al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Riedel told The Daily Beast, referring to the terror group’s Yemeni branch—the one that U.S. intelligence officials say is most capable of attacking in Europe and the United States. “Much of eastern Yemen will be a chaotic no-man’s-land where al Qaeda can operate.”

What’s the solution? There isn’t one. We can’t go back to the relatively tranquil days of 2007-08 — not without a World War II-scale, region-wide intervention, and that’s just not going to happen. Instead we’re stuck with the bitter fruit of six years of malign neglect by President Obama, whose job in the Middle East should have been comparatively simple. All he had to do was keep a lid on Iraq, keep Iran boxed in, and work with local authorities at playing Whack-a-Mole with the region’s various terror groups. Instead, Obama abandoned Iraq, set Iran loose, and failed at creating any sort of strategic vision for dealing with Arab governments or terror groups.

The so-called Arab Spring complicated things, but bad judgment (let us call it that) made several bad situation worse. Obama preferred disengagement in Syria, where something more proactive was required. In Egypt, Obama openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and turned his back on the secular military government. Temperance was required to help hold Libya together, but Obama chose instead to recklessly depose the Ghaddafi regime, despite years of anti-terror cooperation. From Benghazi to Tikrit, from Mosul to Sanaa, Obama has left death and disorder in his wake.

So to paraphrase Lenin, you can’t make an omelet with egg on your face — Obama’s bad judgement (let us still call it that) has left much of the Arab world broken, probably for a generation or more.

The best posture we could adopt now would be to strenuously back Cairo and Riyadh, as Saudi money and Egyptian manpower could both be put to good use against ISIS and Iran. But that posture simply isn’t possible for Obama, who prefers the Muslim Brotherhood to Egypt’s military government and Iranian mullahs to Saudi sheiks.

The next American president, Republican or Democrat, seems likely to inherit an even worse situation — today’s chaos plus a potential Saudi/Iranian nuclear standoff. Imagine the Cold War writ small, or Syria writ large, but where the major players are both psychotic.

The loss of Yemen is going to seem like the least of our problems.

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