As the Geek got on the airplane out he thought, "Praise be to the Fates, but this is one place Americans will never have to be involved." How wrong the Geek was--or, to err on the side of accuracy, seems to have been.
The US has been indirectly involved in the Yemeni mess for some time. Yemen is, after all, the place of origin for Osama bin Laden's family. It was the scene of the suicide boat bombing of the USS Cole. Our Predators once took out an al-Qaeda heavy on one of Yemen's dusty trails. And, Yemen is where Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico born, Yemeni descended, Islamist jihadist cleric and email pen pal of Major Hasan now holds forth in all his bloody mouthed sway.
Now the VoA reports that the official Yemeni news agency has announced the signing of a new military cooperation agreement between the current pretense of a Yemeni government and the US. From the photo in the VoA story showing an elderly (WW II vintage) British artillery piece in action it is evident that the Yemeni government and military could use some assistance. The report, unfortunately, does not outline what the purported cooperation agreement contains by way of specifics.
If the US has made any specific commitment to Yemen it may be akin to sticking one's finger into a particularly sticky tarbaby. Yemen has not been a genuine nation-state ever. Following the coup nearly fifty years ago and the ensuing British withdrawal from "East of Suez," Yemen disintegrated into an internal morass facilitated by the efforts of outsiders (most importantly, the Egypt of Nasser's time.)
For a while the situation more or less stabilized with the formation of two countries, North Yemen and the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen. Ultimately the two recombined as one--at least on paper. Since the "reunification," the Yemeni terrain both physical and human has been littered with insurgencies and become a way station as well as area of operations for transnational Islamist jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda.
By most standards Yemen is a failed state today. The government is riven by internal rivalries which typically are a carry forward of tribal politics. The efforts of this government and its military to contain let alone terminate the insurgencies, particularly the one being waged by the Houthi of the north, have been fruitless. The army has shown little capacity beyond that of generating refugees and turning the stone and adobe huts of northern villages into candidates for urban renewal.
The Iranians and Saudis have both become involved in the contest between Houthi and the central government. The Iranians have attempted to be ever so secret in their involvement but, with the usual blundering of the mullahs' regime, have dropped the "c" from covert. The Saudis have finally entered the venue openly after their earlier attempt at deal making with the Houthi failed miserably.
While some "analysts" such as Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group downplay the involvement of the Iranians beyond their offer to take part in a "collective approach" to solving the instability in Yemen, the case for the Iranians not using Yemen as a venue for proxy warfare is far from conclusive. There is no doubt that the Iranians were caught with hands quite red (but not faces to match) when their shipload of arms for the Houthi was seized last month.
It is too pat to portray the Iranian-Saudi contretemps as being simply another episode in the thousand year conflict between Shia and Sunni. To do such is to underrate current strategic planning in the pursuit of national interest. While the invocation of confessional loyalty may be a useful tool for mobilizing support or justifying involvement, it is simply an adjunct.
The stakes in the current game are those of regional hegemony. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have concluded long ago that it is in their individual subjectively defined national interest to be the hegemon of the Arabian Peninsula and the adjacent water of the Persian (or if you are from Saudi or another Arab country) the Arabian Gulf.
The region is not big enough for two hegemons. It's like one of those old black and white cowboy movies, "This town ain't big enough for the two of us." During the Nixon administration the US made a choice, Iran under the Shah would be our proxy, our regional hegemonic power in the area. Not that this choice gladdened the hearts of the House of Sand, but even the assorted Kings and Princes of the Realm of Mosques and Oil admitted at the time that Iran had more military muscle than they. So, they went along, grudgingly.
After the Iranian Revolution put paid to the grand scheme of Henry Kissinger, the fall back for the US was initially Iraq. Iraq was resolutely anti-Communist, determinedly anti-Iranian, and possessed considerable military capacity (or so it seemed at the time.) The US tilted strongly toward Iraq during Saddam's ill-considered and worse executed war of aggression.
Kuwait changed all of that. Now the US needed another "reliable" partner in the strategically critical region. By process of elimination Saudi Arabia was the last country standing.
Risking the opposition of the Israel Lobby, administrations of both parties have authorized the sale of advanced weapons systems to the Kingdom--even though some of these endowed the Saudis with a hypothetical capacity to attack Israel directly. At the same time the US has made enhanced guarantees to both Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Gulf to provide for their defense against any Iranian threat.
The result has been the very unsystematic drawing of a line of containment around Iran. While the line is broken in several places (Syria, Turkey and Russia) it does circumscribe Iran to a great extent--particularly from the point of view in Tehran. The Soviets showed during the long decades of the Cold War that lines of containment can be jumped through the use of proxies.
This lesson was not lost on the Iranian regime. Iran has carefully executed a strategy of rendering the implicit doctrine of containment irrelevant through the creative use of allies and proxies alike. Aided by Syria the Iranians have manufactured or strengthened proxies in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Tehran has done the same to a much lesser and far more noiseless way in Sudan and Eritrea.
To expect Tehran not to employ the same approach in a way which would discomfit the Saudis to an even greater extent with support for the Houthi in Yemen is to deny reality. While the Houthi may practice a form of Shia, the religious dimension is far, far less important than the potential of tying the Kingdom down in a no-win way in the rocks and sand of Yemen.
The intentions of Tehran to both embarrass and weaken the Saudis by creating a focus on the Houthi insurgency and, even more, the response of the Saudi supported Yemeni government to that unpleasantness are easily seen in a very recent demarche from Tehran. The Grand Ayatollah Ali Safi Gopaygani has demanded that the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) "end its silence" on the "suffering" inflicted on Yemeni civilians by that country's army and "certain neighboring countries."
The Grand Ayatollah also denounced the hands off approach of "international human rights groups" including at least implicitly, the UN Human Rights Council. The goal of casting both Yemen and its patron Saudi Arabia in the same light as Israel is obvious. While Saudi Arabia is a harder target for the human rights advocates than is Israel, it is not immune to attack and marginalization from that side. The vulnerability is greater if Iran can gain sufficient sway within the OIC to bend that group even slightly against the Kingdom. As a tactic it has much to recommend it, particularly its potential for high payoff over time at very low risk to Iran.
It is self-evident that the US cannot simply sit back with folded hands as Yemen dissolves further, until it becomes equivalent to the place across the Gulf of Aden--Somalia. There is too much at stake in that fly bitten stretch of near barren rock. The vise on the Gulf of Aden. The development of another "safe haven" for Islamist jihadists. A weakening of Saudi Arabia including an increase in its liability for destabilizing and oil price increasing attacks.
The Yemen Affair adds another layer of complication to the formation and implementation of a policy toward Iran on the part of the Obama administration. Even the most multi-culturally inclined post-modernist in the administration must realize by now that talking nicey-nice to the Tehran regime is a waste of time, energy, and credibility.
In a very real way it is the Iranian president, its Orator-in-Chief, Ahmadinejad, who has pointed the way for policy. The internationally renowned statesman has presented President Obama with a clear cut choice--Israel or Iran.
In his speech to the 25th meeting of the Standing Committee on Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the OIC, the more-or-less elected Iranian leader pulled no punches, essayed no nuances, he directly and bluntly told the assembled confreres that to have real "change" the American president must make real choices, and the most important of these was picking one over the other--either Iran or Israel. He averred there was no way Iran could take the hand of a country who held the "Zionist entity" with the other.
So, Mr Obama, why not take the man at his word? Admittedly Israel is not the most docile or comforting of allies. But, Israelis have never seized an American embassy. They have never taken Americans hostage. They have not sponsored and aided Islamist jihadist groups to engage in terror attacks.
Sure, the Israelis have a substantial nuclear capacity. But, they have never threatened to wipe another country off the map. They have never denied an established and internationally recognized state the right to exist. The Israelis might have exhibited a desire for lebensraum which does neither that country nor its supporters any good, let alone a reason to be proud. But, they have shown a willingness (grudging to be sure) to slow "settlements" and at least every now and then exchange land for peace.
Israel may not be perfect in its protection of the human rights of all who live in its borders or under its control, but it does not stone adulterers, hang homosexuals, ban the press, stifle expression, block the Internet, suppress those faiths not observed by the majority. The government and people of Israel may be prickly, but they do have a full fledged, fully functional democracy, an independent judiciary, a military which is under civilian control (even though most successful politicians were military successes first), and a blustering willingness to argue, to disagree, to dissent, to fight it out with words.
Given such a blunt choice, making one is a no-brainer. Following through with the ramifications and implications, these demand first quality thinking. It is necessary, for example, to change from containment-by-inadvertence to containment by policy. This means making difficult deals with Syria (and getting the Israelis on board,) wooing Turkey back to the West even though the current government is Islamist leaning and the process of cozening the Turks will demand the assistance of the Europeans--even the Turkey-phobic French.
Hardest of all, a policy of containment would need the agreement of the Kremlin. This is very, very difficult, but given the current and projected difficulties Moscow faces with Islamist jihadists supported by Tehran, there is a coinciding national interest in play. It also gives an opportunity to treat Russia as it wants to be treated--as a fellow Great Power.
Then there is Saudi Arabia. Well, it's their existence which is at risk in the race for regional hegemonic power status. They can take their chances or work with us to a common end. In the end the House of Sand is pragmatic--survival of the House and regime trump all other considerations.
There it is, Mr Obama, short and not at all sweet. Yemen is part of the problem. But, Tehran has made the choice simple. It is up to you and the people you selected to do the work of implementation. Ahmadinejad was man enough to put the choice to you. Are you man enough to follow through?