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Yemen (3) – Knee Deep In The Big Muddy

January 11, 2010

The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire.”

Barack Obama – Cairo, Egypt – June 4, 2009


“We were knee deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on”

Verse from a folk song written and sung by Pete Seeger about US `involvement’  in Vietnam


1. What New Beginning?

What New Beginning?

As speeches go, it was about as good as it gets. He spoke of `a new beginning’, there was a sense that the juvenile and bellicose tone which had marked the eight years of the Bush presidency would be replaced by more respectful dialogue. The possibility of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was suggested as well as a new and less confrontational opening of dialogue with Iran. Although it was not specifically stated, the sense came through loud and clear that breaks would be put on George Bush and Dick Cheney’s perpetual war on terrorism.

Barack Obama’s words were impressive and I acknowledged as much in public remarks recently (2), indeed chiding friends on the left who viewed the speech with complete cynicism (who were closer to `the facts on the ground’ than I was). Still, giving a Nobel Peace Prize to someone essentially for making 2 promising speeches (the one in Cairo in June and a prior talk in Ankara Turkey on April 6 [3]) was a bit pre-mature. Hopeful, yes, – the speeches raised hopes in the Middle East and around the world – but was still not yet reflected in the realities on the ground.

Not Much Has Changed In A Year And What Has Is For The Worse

Only those not wanting to face global political realities (I don’t particularly like facing them either) can avoid `the verdict’ of the facts on the ground, now a year into Barack Obama’s presidency. Not only has `the war on terrorism’ not reversed itself or subsided: it has been significantly intensified during the year of the Obama presidency. For all Obama’s fine words – enough to win him that Nobel Prize, when it comes to the US militarization not just of the Middle East but of the world, last year looks pretty much like the year before and this coming year bodes ill.

Last Year’s Lowlights

Let us just touch on the highlights (or more accurately – low lights) of this past year:

Obama has greatly stepped up the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, dragging NATO along with the United States (some of the countries admittedly kicking and screaming) into what appears to be a Vietnam like maelstrom. The very fact that the president has had to defend the troop additions in Afghanistan as NOT `like Vietnam’ only substantiates the growing parallels between the two wars.

After a short `opening’ with Iran, relations have bogged down with renewed threats of possible military attacks from Israel; the New York Times is once again floating the idea of `the need for’ a US military attack there. The nuclear card continues to be played despite the fact that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, nor has any credible evidence been produced that it is making them. Meanwhile a host of other countries in the region either have substantial nuclear arsenals (Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia) and the United States (whose naval and air forces with nuclear weapons abound in the region)

The short hopes for some kind of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front – easing of the Gaza Blockade, beginning serious negotiations towards a two state solution under US auspices- have gone nowhere and will go nowhere. The US backed down on pressuring Israel on settlements, especially where it concerns they are being intensively built, expanded, remodeled, in the region around Jerusalem. Unprecedented levels of US military aid to Israel continues as does military cooperation; the Obama Administration is helping the Egyptians build an `underground wall’ to seal what remains of Gaza’s contacts with the outside world. Current humanitarian efforts to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Egypt get virtually no press coverage in the US media, etc etc.

The major non-stop US military build up in the broader Middle East region, the execution of wars, of covert activity, of base building, of `taking out’ political opponents (targeted assassinations), of drone attacks with their high civilian casualty rates, continue unabated. Not only has the `war on terrorism’ as it is called not slowed under Barack Obama, but it has intensified, the latest front now opening being Yemen.

On a broader scale, all of this is part of a swollen US military budget. If one includes its stated amounts combined with the `supplementals’ authorized both for Iraq and Afghanistan, throw in the nuclear part of the Department of Energy’s budget combined with `black budget’ items (secret – counter insurgency etc) – the total, as suggested by various sources including Chalmers Johnson – approaches or exceeds $1 trillion. The fact has been oft repeated that the sum represents more than all the other military budgets of the world combined. It includes the funding for the 700 or so US military bases and outposts – perhaps more – around the world, many of which operate with little or no consultation with host countries involved

A new beginning? Hardly.

2. Curious US military Build Up in Yemen

For all that the military build up in Yemen is curious. In the last entry on Yemen (see December 27, 2009 entry), I wondered:

“The question remains: how much deeper will the US proceed to get into Yemen’s mire militarily only complicating its already overstretched military in the region that much more?”

The answer, shaping up two weeks later is the scope of the US military operations in Yemen are shaping up to be a major operation, perhaps on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan. The same justifications for the Yemeni military offensive – that brew of exaggeration, half truths and falsehoods is being peddled with a slightly different emphasis than before the invasion of Iraq.

We are told there is a Yemeni connection to the botched `crotch bombing’ attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Perhaps. But it is a bit of a stretch to target the whole country of Yemen as a result. By way of example, the majority of 9-11 attackers were Saudi, and their effort succeeded. The US didn’t go out and bomb Saudi Arabia as a result or try to set up military bases there, did it?

The US (and Saudi) military build up against Yemen started well before the botched airline bombing incident – some two months prior making it appear as if the US military build up in Yemen was once again, aggression looking for – and finding – a useful pretext.

Although the Obama Administration pointed to `the usual suspects’ – al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, the al Qaeda’s presence – real, but still quite modest from the indications I can glean from different sources is in the south of Yemen where the separatist movement exits. The US and the Saudis bombed in the north – and they were as cruel and stupid as most US bombings – carpet bombings killing a lot of civilians. There is virtually no al Qaeda presence there.

So once again an `al Qaeda’ is being used as a pretext for other US strategic aims

The northern rebels are associated with the Houthi ethnic group. This groups has long had social and economic grievances with the central government that have nothing to do with al Qaeda. Also, they are described in the US media as `Shi’ite’, but several reliable Moslem sources I checked with suggest that Houthis are not Shi’ites. To call them Shi’ities helps spread the false rumor that Yemen is shaping up to be a kind of Shi’ite-Sunni contest…and ultimately another US-Iranian proxy war. In the same way that at its heart, Lebanon is NOT a US-Iranian proxi war, neither is Yemen.

Magnifying the al Qaeda threat from Yemen is a way of justifying, rationalizing deeper US military involvement there. There is some talk, that a part of the Houthi resistance is their opposition to the US building a secret military base in the mountain areas where they reside.

3. Avnery on al Qaeda

There is much more to explore here, but perhaps this would be a good time to review what we know about al Qaeda. For starters I quote Avnery, the Israeli political commentator and peace activist who, as usual, hit the nail on the head. Here he is talking about US pretexts for invading Afghanistan, but the comments apply equally well for current plans for Yemen.

“I wrote once that al-Qaeda is an America invention and that Osama Bin-Laden has been sent by Hollywood’s Central Casting to play the role. He is simply too good to be true.”

“That was, of course, a bit of an exaggeration. But not altogether. The US is always in need of a world-wide enemy. In the past it was International Communism, whose agents were lurking behind every tree and under every floor tile. But, alas, the Soviet Union and its minions had collapsed, there was an urgent need for an enemy to fill the void. This was found in the shape of the world-wide jihad of al-Qaeda. The crushing of World Terrorism became the overriding American aim.”

“That aim is nonsense. Terrorism is nothing but an instrument of war. It is used by organizations that are vastly different from each other, which are fighting in vastly different countries for vastly different objectives. A war on International Terror is like a war on International Artillery” or International Navy”.

“A world-embracing movement led by Osama Bin-Laden just does not exist. Thanks to the Americans, al-Qaeda has become a prestige brand in the guerrilla market, much like McDonald’s and Armani in the world of fast food and fashion. Every militant Islamist organization can appropriate the name for itself, even without a franchise from Bin-Laden.”

“American client regimes, who used to brand all their local enemies as communist” in order to procure the help of their patrons, now brand them as al-Qaeda terrorists”.

Essence of Avnery’s argument: During the Cold War, the US used anti-communism as a pretext for military intervention, now they use `the war on terrorism’ and the hunt for al Qaeda. While there is an al Qaeda, its reach and influence are constantly exaggerated in order to provide a pretext for further intervention. As there is poverty, political oppression `instability’ as it is called most everywhere and as little groups pop up here and their doing stupid things like trying to light explosives in their crotches to blow up air planes, the US now has a ready made excuse to intervene anywhere and everywhere it wants – without much domestic opposition if they spin the media cleverly (as in this Yemen affair).

From what I can tell – all this is deadly accurate and as usual, well written. But I want to probe `this al Qaeda stuff’ a bit more because a fundamental link in the chain is missing here – what we can call the Saudi connection.

4. The Saudi Connection

What is the Saudi connection?

It goes something like this. Any peace activist or serious Middle East scholar knows that to openly criticize Israel risks the `Norman Finkelstein’ path – ie, one gets hassled, fired, vilified and called silly names by the likes of AIPAC, Abe Foxman and other Israel-worshiper types. Do so at your own risk.

Ok, but this is not the beginning of another piece on Israeli misdeeds. It turns out there is another informal taboo here in the USA, more subtle but just as pervasive: criticizing Saudi Arabia. Yes, every once in a while, to take the pressure off Israeli’s latest inhumane record towards the Palestinians, those close to Israel bring up the Saudi human rights record, but even here, it is rarely done and for good reason – strange as it seems – Israel and Saudi Arabia are and have been strategic allies, and key players in US Middle East strategy.

The arrangement whereby the US `discourages’ criticism of Saudi Arabia goes way back and looks something like this: The Saudis promise to provide an uninterrupted supply of oil to US allies (and more and more the US itself). In exchange the US turns a blind eye on a century of Saudi human rights abuses towards its own people – you know that stuff, still quite true of cutting off people’s hands for stealing, etc etc.


Much – but not all of the Saudi repressive record – can be explained by the Saudi regime’s support for what used to be a narrow fundamentalists form of Sunni Islam called `Wahhabism’. I’ll write more about Wahhabism later, its history and how it was used first by the British and then by the US to divide the Arab and Islamic world, how without Saudi oil money it would be little more than a marginal movement within Islam, akin in Christianity to Christian `identity’ movements. But under Saudi protection it has taken on a life of its own and through its missionaries backed by substantial amounts of Saudi money has spread itself through the Muslim world and beyond.

The problem for the Saudis is that the Wahhabis scare the hell out of the royal family. It is Wahhabism, through their religious schools, the medrasahs that politicizes down and out Saudis to become politically radical muslims, little Osama bin Ladens if you will. Caught in a bind of its own making with the Wahhabis being far too strong to politically crush, the Saudi regime has opted for another plan. It’s not much different from what the British by sending Irish radicals to Australia – get rid of the Wahhabi radicals by exporting them by the plane load to the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Yemen and Kenya as missionaries.

The Wahhabi missionaries, like all good missionaries be they secular or religious, Mormons, Peace Corps Volunteers, Communists in the 1930s or Jesuits focus their work on the poorest of the poor, the world’s most down and out in an all out effort to win converts to `the cause’…whatever the cause may be. And though the cause may differ, the method is strikingly similar. Do good deeds among the poor and oppressed and win them to `the faith’. The missionaries are all well trained in the movement’s ideology and the best and most stubborn of them, can and do win supporters.

Wahhabi Missionaries Sew The Seeds; al Qaeda and other Islamic Militant Groups Harvest the Fruits

Still the relationship between the Wahhabi missionaries and al Qaeda is somewhat nuanced. There is a division of labor here. Rarely do Wahhabi missionaries become al Qaeda fighters. The role of the Wahhabist missionaries in Yemen, Pakistan or Indonesia is to plant the seed, provide the ideological formation, while that of the al Qaeda militants (or whatever name the group gives itself) is to harvest it. al Qaeda and other Muslim fundamentalist groups are dependent upon the Wahhabi established schools and educated youth. They simply wait and pick off the ideological `cream of the crop’ and transform them into ideologically driven guerilla fighters for the cause of the Islamic nation.

This by the way has been going on for decades. Every US administration since Roosevelt is aware of the process. The US needs Saudi oil, the Saudis are caught in a bind with their Wahhabi clerics upon whom they are dependent. The royal family legitimizes them, but to the degree it can, gets rid of the most radical elements by shipping them off as missionaries wherever (wherever – especially Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Yemen). Given the special US-Saudi relationship, the US turns a blind eye but, at the higher levels is completely aware of the process and the dangers it entails to world peace. The US – be it the Bush or Obama Administrations – also knows every well the relationship between the Wahhabi missionaries and militant Islamic organizations.

The US-Saudi Strategic Relationship

And if this analysis is correct, and I think it is, – appreciate comments on its accuracy from readers who follow this stuff – it begs the question.. actually it begs several questions, among them:

1. Why does the US, claiming to fight terrorism let this go on. Why not go to the source – Saudi Arabia and deal with it there instead of bombing wedding parties in Afghanistan and killing civilians in Yemen?

2. How does the US benefit, or perhaps the more accurate term would be `manage’ this explosive social cocktail?

As to the first. Wahhabism is so much ingrained in the fabric of Saudi life that for the US to challenge these processes would probably result in the undermining of the regime itself. The stability of the Saudi regime is, I would argue, far more essential and fundamental to US regional plans, and frankly to US global strategy for maintaining what is left of its global hegemony than is its overblown and economically strategically limited relationship with, let’s say, Israel. (Who has more oil?). So the US will tolerate Wahhabist religious extremism – and the complications that flow from it as long as the stability of the Saudi royal family is assured.

How does the US `manage this constant stream of Saudi-manufactured religious extremists?

Historic Flexibility

Well, with historical flexibility.

– During the Cold War, the US welcomed Islamic extremism as a weapon to divide the Arab World (in particular) and to counter the influence of different forms of radical secular nationalism – be it the Nasserist version in Egypt or to weaken what were once powerful communist parties and movements towards socialism in Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Israel did the same thing by pitting Hamas, that it once `tolerated’ and to a certain degree funded against Fateh and the Palestinian secular left (DF, PF). The classic example of using Islamic fundamentalism against as a political and military weapon in the service of the US, is – as is well known – the US support and funding of Osama bin Laden during the 1979-1989 war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

– But after Communism had the nerve to collapse in 1989-1991, the tactics changed. For a while there the US was really in trouble as it had lost `its enemy’. What is the US without an enemy, that glue along with our flagging prosperity that seems to keep the nation from spinning apart. Different presidents did toy with trying to replace the great fear of Communism with a great fear of single welfare mothers (in the early 1990s), but that just didn’t fly. As the new millenium dawned, in fact, we were still `enemy-less’ and this presented serious problems to the long repressed desires of so many in power to use the US military as a means of the US retaining its remnant of global power. It was a real identity crisis and we can thank Osama bin Laden for bringing us all back together again to give the Bush Administration the pretext to invade Iraq, although there was no link between the secular Saddam Hussein and the former CIA operative and paid agent, Osama bin Laden.

Ok, getting back to the main point… the missionary work of the Wahhabists throughout poor Muslim communities of the world, where there probably be social, economic and political instability anyway has led to the growth of militant Islamic groups in many places. None of these groups represents a serious threat to the political power of the nations involved. They are marginal, almost all very small groups with neanderthalic political programs and very narrow social bases. They do have the ability however, to do damage within limited frameworks. And they will continue to grow and to sprout in many places.

While few if any of these groups represent a strategic threat to the governments or the nations involved, the provide an excellent pretext for US military intervention in the name of fighting terrorism. But that is always, always simply a pretext which hides some strategic reasoning for why the US should go to war militarily. Unveiling the pretexts has become easy, probing and zeroing in on the strategic goal is more difficult, takes a collective effort but can be done – as it was with Afghanistan and Iraq.

All this begs the question…why is the US stepping up its military intervention in Yemen? What we are being fed is pretexts, let’s explore the possible strategic goals in the next few entries. We need to do this, in order to counter what is, in the name of fighting terrorism and defending democracy, an awful, inhumane reactionary US foreign policy.






3 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy Barwig permalink
    January 26, 2010 1:14 pm

    I think your section on Yemen conflates the hyper-interventionist rhetoric emanating from some with actual U.S. policy. I would hope that Obama and other policymakers recognize that Yemen is not Iraq or Afghanistan. Neither do I see a U.S. military build-up in the country nor a campaign to propagate one as you suggest. For the time being, I think the U.S. is content to let President Saleh and the Saudis do the dirty work by supplying actionable intelligence. I’m not defending this practice or the outcomes it produces but I think you need to be more careful about making insinuations about U.S. actions or intentions in Yemen.

    • January 26, 2010 1:56 pm

      I would hope you are correct but fear not…the level of growth of the US military abroad has been profoundly understated.
      Think of the size of the US military budget dwarfing all others combined, the 700 foreign military bases – not counting the countless `secret ones’…
      There has long been a tendency to downplay or ignore the scope of the US global military network..
      Suggest you look at Chalmers Johnson stuff (among others)
      Anyhow, that said, I appreciate your comment…


  1. Yemen Articles…. « Rob Prince's Blog

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