Obama's Yemeni Odyssey Targets China
By M.K. Bhadrakumar
18 January, 2010
A year ago, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh made the startling revelation that his country's security forces apprehended a group of Islamists linked to the Israeli intelligence forces. "A terrorist cell was apprehended and will be referred to the courts for its links with the Israeli intelligence services," he promised.
Saleh added, "You will hear about the trial proceedings." Nothing was ever heard and the trail went cold. Welcome to the magical land of Yemen, where in the womb of time the Arabian Nights were played out.
Combine Yemen with the mystique of Islam, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Israeli intelligence and you get a heady mix. The head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, dropped in at the capital, Sana'a, on Saturday and vowed to Saleh increased American aid to fight al-Qaeda. United States President Barack Obama promptly echoed Petraeus' promise, assuring that the US would step up intelligence-sharing and training of Yemeni forces and perhaps carry out joint attacks against militants in the region.
Many accounts say that Obama, who is widely regarded as a gifted and intelligent politician, is blundering into a catastrophic mistake by starting another war that could turn out to be as bloody and chaotic and unwinnable as Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, on the face of it, Obama does seem erratic. The parallels with Afghanistan are striking. There has been an attempt to destroy a US plane by a Nigerian student who says he received training in Yemen. And America wants to go to war.
Yemen, too, is a land of wonderfully beautiful rugged mountains that could be a guerilla paradise. Yemenis are a hospitable lot, like Afghan tribesmen, but as Irish journalist Patrick Cockurn recollects, while they are generous to passing strangers, they "deem the laws of hospitality to lapse when the stranger leaves their tribal territory, at which time he becomes 'a good back to shoot at'." Surely, there is romance in the air - almost like in the Hindu Kush. Fiercely nationalistic, almost every Yemeni has a gun. Yemen is also, like Afghanistan, a land of conflicting authorities, and with foreign intervention, a little civil war is waiting to flare up.
Is Obama so incredibly forgetful of his own December 1 speech outlining his Afghan strategy that he violated his own canons? Certainly not. Obama is a smart man. The intervention in Yemen will go down as one of the smartest moves that he ever made for perpetuating the US's global hegemony. It is America's answer to China's surge.
A cursory look at the map of region will show that Yemen is one of the most strategic lands adjoining waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. It flanks Saudi Arabia and Oman, which are vital American protectorates. In effect, Uncle Sam is "marking territory" - like a dog on a lamppost. Russia has been toying with the idea of reopening its Soviet-era base in Aden. Well, the US has pipped Moscow in the race.
The US has signaled that the odyssey doesn't end with Yemen. It is also moving into Somalia and Kenya. With that, the US establishes its military presence in an entire unbroken stretch of real estate all along the Indian Ocean's western rim. Chinese officials have of late spoken of their need to establish a naval base in the region. The US has now foreclosed China's options. The only country with a coastline that is available for China to set up a naval base in the region will be Iran. All other countries have a Western military presence.
The American intervention in Yemen is not going to be on the pattern of Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama will ensure he doesn't receive any body bags of American servicemen serving in Yemen. That is what the American public expects from him. He will only deploy drone aircraft and special forces and "focus on providing intelligence and training to help Yemen counter al-Qaeda militants", according to the US military. Obama's main core objective will be to establish an enduring military presence in Yemen. This serves many purposes.
A new great game begins
First, the US move has to be viewed against the historic backdrop of the Shi'ite awakening in the region. The Shi'ites (mostly of the Zaidi group) have been traditionally suppressed in Yemen. Shi'ite uprisings have been a recurring theme in Yemen's history. There has been a deliberate attempt to minimize the percentage of Shi'ites in Yemen, but they could be anywhere up to 45%.
More importantly, in the northern part of the country, they constitute the majority. What bothers the US and moderate Sunni Arab states - and Israel - is that the Believing Youth Organization led by Hussein Badr al-Houthi, which is entrenched in northern Yemen, is modeled after Hezbollah in Lebanon in all respects - politically, economically, socially and culturally.
Yemenis are an intelligent people and are famous in the Arabian Peninsula for their democratic temperament. The Yemeni Shi'ite empowerment on a Hezbollah-model would have far-reaching regional implications. Next-door Oman, which is a key American base, is predominantly Shi'ite. Even more sensitive is the likelihood of the dangerous idea of Shi'ite empowerment spreading to Saudi Arabia's highly restive Shi'ite regions adjoining Yemen, which on top of it all, also happen to be the reservoir of the country's fabulous oil wealth.
Saudi Arabia is entering a highly sensitive phase of political transition as a new generation is set to take over the leadership in Riyadh, and the palace intrigues and fault lines within the royal family are likely to get exacerbated. To put it mildly, given the vast scale of institutionalized Shi'ite persecution in Saudi Arabia by the Wahhabi establishment, Shi'ite empowerment is a veritable minefield that Riyadh is petrified about at this juncture. Its threshold of patience is wearing thin, as the recent uncharacteristic resort to military power against the north Yemeni Shi'ite communities bordering Saudi Arabia testifies.
The US faces a classic dilemma. It is all right for Obama to highlight the need of reform in Muslim societies - as he did eloquently in his Cairo speech last June. But democratization in the Yemeni context - ironically, in the Arab context - would involve Shi'ite empowerment. After the searing experience in Iraq, Washington is literally perched like a cat on a hot tin roof. It would much rather be aligned with the repressive, autocratic government of Saleh than let the genie of reform out of the bottle in the oil rich-region in which it has profound interests.
Obama has an erudite mind and he is not unaware that what Yemen desperately needs is reform, but he simply doesn't want to think about it. The paradox he faces is that with all its imperfections, Iran happens to be the only "democratic" system operating in that entire region.
Iran's shadow over the Yemeni Shi'ite consciousness worries the US to no end. Simply put, in the ideological struggle going on in the region, Obama finds himself with the ultra-conservative and brutally autocratic oligarchies that constitute the ruling class in the region. Conceivably, he isn't finding it easy. If his own memoirs are to be believed, there could be times when the vague recollections of his childhood in Indonesia and his precious memories of his own mother, who from all accounts was a free-wheeling intellectual and humanist, must be stalking him in the White House corridors.
Israel moves in
But Obama is first and foremost a realist. Emotions and personal beliefs drain away and strategic considerations weigh uppermost when he works in the Oval Office. With the military presence in Yemen, the US has tightened the cordon around Iran. In the event of a military attack on Iran, Yemen could be put to use as a springboard by the Israelis. These are weighty considerations for Obama.
The fact is that no one is in control as a Yemeni authority. It is a cakewalk for the formidable Israeli intelligence to carve out a niche in Yemen - just as it did in northern Iraq under somewhat comparable circumstances.
Islamism doesn't deter Israel at all. Saleh couldn't have been far off the mark when he alleged last year that Israeli intelligence had been exposed as having kept links with Yemeni Islamists. The point is, Yemeni Islamists are a highly fragmented lot and no one is sure who owes what sort of allegiance to whom. Israeli intelligence operates marvelously in such twilight zones when the horizon is lacerated with the blood of the vanishing sun.
Israel will find a toehold in Yemen to be a god-sent gift insofar as it registers its presence in the Arabian Peninsula. This is a dream come true for Israel, whose effectiveness as a regional power has always been seriously handicapped by its lack of access to the Persian Gulf region. The overarching US military presence helps Israel politically to consolidate its Yemeni chapter. Without doubt, Petraeus is moving on Yemen in tandem with Israel (and Britain). But the "pro-West" Arab states with their rentier mentality have no choice except to remain as mute spectators on the sidelines.
Some among them may actually acquiesce with the Israeli security presence in the region as a safer bet than the spread of the dangerous ideas of Shi'ite empowerment emanating out of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. Also, at some stage, Israeli intelligence will begin to infiltrate the extremist Sunni outfits in Yemen, which are commonly known as affiliates of al-Qaeda. That is, if it hasn't done that already. Any such link makes Israel an invaluable ally for the US in its fight against al-Qaeda. In sum, infinite possibilities exist in the paradigm that is taking shape in the Muslim world abutting into the strategic Persian Gulf.
It's all about China
Most important, however, for US global strategies will be the massive gain of control of the port of Aden in Yemen. Britain can vouchsafe that Aden is the gateway to Asia. Control of Aden and the Malacca Strait will put the US in an unassailable position in the "great game" of the Indian Ocean. The sea lanes of the Indian Ocean are literally the jugular veins of China's economy. By controlling them, Washington sends a strong message to Beijing that any notions by the latter that the US is a declining power in Asia would be nothing more than an extravagant indulgence in fantasy.
In the Indian Ocean region, China is increasingly coming under pressure. India is a natural ally of the US in the Indian Ocean region. Both disfavor any significant Chinese naval presence. India is mediating a rapprochement between Washington and Colombo that would help roll back Chinese influence in Sri Lanka.
The US has taken a u-turn in its Myanmar policy and is engaging the regime there with the primary intent of eroding China's influence with the military rulers. The Chinese strategy aimed at strengthening influence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar so as to open a new transportation route towards the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Africa, where it has begun contesting traditional Western economic dominance.
China is keen to whittle down its dependence on the Malacca Strait for its commerce with Europe and West Asia. The US, on the contrary, is determined that China remains vulnerable to the choke point between Indonesia and Malaysia.
An engrossing struggle is breaking out. The US is unhappy with China's efforts to reach the warm waters of the Persian Gulf through the Central Asian region and Pakistan. Slowly but steadily, Washington is tightening the noose around the neck of the Pakistani elites - civilian and military - and forcing them to make a strategic choice between the US and China. This will put those elites in an unenviable dilemma. Like their Indian counterparts, they are inherently "pro-Western" (even when they are "anti-American") and if the Chinese connection is important for Islamabad, that is primarily because it balances perceived Indian hegemony.
The existential questions with which the Pakistani elites are grappling are apparent. They are seeking answers from Obama. Can Obama maintain a balanced relationship vis-a-vis Pakistan and India? Or, will Obama lapse back to the George W Bush era strategy of building up India as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean under whose shadow Pakistan will have to learn to live?
On the other hand, the Indian elites are in no compromising mood. Delhi was on a roll during the Bush days. Now, after the initial misgivings about Obama's political philosophy, Delhi is concluding that he is all but a clone of his illustrious predecessor as regards the broad contours of the US's global strategy - of which containment of China is a core template.
The comfort level is palpably rising in Delhi with regard to the Obama presidency. Delhi takes the surge of the Israeli lobby in Washington as the litmus test for the Obama presidency. The surge suits Delhi, since the Jewish lobby was always a helpful ally in cultivating influence in the US Congress, media and the rabble-rousing think-tankers as well as successive administrations. And all this is happening at a time when the India-Israel security relationship is gaining greater momentum.
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates is due to visit Delhi in the coming days. The Obama administration is reportedly adopting an increasingly accommodative attitude toward India's longstanding quest for "dual-use" technology from the US. If so, a massive avenue of military cooperation is about to open between the two countries, which will make India a serious challenger to China's growing military prowess. It is a win-win situation as the great Indian arms bazaar offers highly lucrative business for American companies.
Clearly, a cozy three-way US-Israel-India alliance provides the underpinning for all the maneuvering that is going on. It will have significance for the security of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. Last year, India formalized a naval presence in Oman.
All-in-all, terrorism experts are counting the trees and missing the wood when they analyze the US foray into Yemen in the limited terms of hunting down al-Qaeda. The hard reality is that Obama, whose main plank used to be "change", has careened away and increasingly defaults to the global strategies of the Bush era. The freshness of the Obama magic is dissipating. Traces of the "revisionism" in his foreign policy orientation are beginning to surface. We can see them already with regard to Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine problem, Central Asia and towards China and Russia.
Arguably, this sort of "return of the native" by Obama was inevitable. For one thing, he is but a creature of his circumstances. As someone put it brilliantly, Obama's presidency is like driving a train rather than a car: a train cannot be "steered", the driver can at best set its speed, but ultimately, it must run on its tracks.
Besides, history has no instances of a declining world power meekly accepting its destiny and walking into the sunset. The US cannot give up on its global dominance without putting up a real fight. And the reality of all such momentous struggles is that they cannot be fought piece-meal. You cannot fight China without occupying Yemen.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.