Campaign For Liberty
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Imagine if you will a country dominated by heavily armed tribesmen who are fiercely independent, frequently engaged in activities that most observers would regard as criminal, deeply conservative in religion and culture but further divided along sectarian lines, and ruled over by a highly corrupt government that is fighting both a civil war and an insurgency. Throw into the hopper extremely rugged trackless terrain, porous borders, and security forces incapable of exercising jurisdiction outside of the capital city and it is a virtual witches’ brew. Many would immediately think of Afghanistan, where all of the above applies but the description equally fits Yemen, which also enjoys crushing poverty and high unemployment coupled with declining oil revenues and water supplies that can no longer sustain the population. Intelligence officers who are familiar with Yemen agree that coming to grips with the country’s tribesmen in an attempt to root out al-Qaeda will make Afghanistan look like a walk in the park.
Yemen might well become the next American quagmire if the plans of the Obama Administration in its global war on terrorism that is now referred to as “overseas contingency operations” are implemented. As is frequently the case in the imperial capital city Washington, the Obamas see another Yemen. It is an opportunity for nation building, to strengthen institutions and the economy and support an ostensibly friendly government to suppress terrorism. But it doesn’t take much to see what’s wrong with that approach. The Yemenis themselves are fearful of the consequences of too tight an embrace by Washington and are already trying to distance themselves. They see gangsterism and tribalism as their greatest internal security threats, not terrorism, and the best estimates for the number of al-Qaeda adherents in the country number in the low hundreds. And many of those are believed to be the grapes of wrath fruit of Guantanamo Bay, where the United States successfully confined Yemenis who were completely innocent, radicalizing them and turning them into terrorism proselytizers upon their return home.
Let’s face it, there is no such thing as complete security. Whatever security arrangements are made for air travel it will still be possible for someone to circumvent the system either through guile or luck. The Obama Administration’s response to a single thwarted terrorist incident involving an airline in which a small number of Yemenis were involved has proven that American presidents appear to need war, and an identifiable enemy to rally against, more than they need a foreign and security policy that is both proportionate and answerable to the national interest. Yemen is no more a threat to the United States than was Iraq even if its wild deserts do harbor a small number of terrorists. If one accepts at face value the claim of al-Qaeda in Yemen that the attempted airline bombing was in response to several American drone strikes, most particularly a devastating attack on December 17 that killed twenty-three, largely civilians, then it is clear that Congressman Ron Paul’s analysis that “they’re over here because we’re over there” is accurate.
The correct response to the Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is to fix the information sharing problems and modify existing screening procedures in light of the new developments. That would be the sane thing to do, but apparently it is not good enough for the White House. Instead, President Obama has designated a new front for a military confrontation with the terrorist menace, and that will be Yemen. There are reports that special ops soldiers are already in country with plans to introduce still more US soldiers and double the military assistance to Sana’a. By my tally, the US is now actively fighting terrorists in a number of lands to include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, and Yemen. That makes a minimum of six separate and distinct overseas wars all being engaged in without an act of war from Congress and directed against enemies that do not actually directly threaten the United States.
The US is also redefining its relationships with a basket of fourteen countries that are defined as “state sponsors of terrorism and countries of interest.” Citizens of those countries will be required to undergo special security screening that might include invasive body and cavity searches. Twelve of the countries in question are overwhelmingly Muslim. One is half Muslim (Nigeria) and one is communist (Cuba). The inclusion of Cuba is bizarre as there has never been a suicide bomber from Cuba but it reveals the mindset of the Obama Administration — let’s make it look like we’re doing something even if it is ridiculous.
The use of nationality as a defining issue in airport security screening is unprecedented. It will be seen as an insult to the citizens of the countries involved, implying that that they are all somehow being regarded as terrorists, and will further harden already negative views about the United States. It also is illogical as many of the world’s most radicalized young men carry European passports. Profiling of passengers to concentrate on young Muslim men, whatever passports they might be carrying, would at least be understandable given the fact that all of the terrorists who have targeted air travel have fit that category, but to broaden the security sweep to include any and all travelers from certain countries will create difficulties for the security system and for air travel in general. This is already being seen in Europe, where the demands from the Transportation Security Administration and the Obama White House have effectively created a two tier security system which no one has quite figured out how to implement. It is also creating a backlash in the Muslim world, where media reports emphasize the anti-Islamic message being sent by the new procedures, suggesting that the new administration in Washington is again signaling its intent to engage in conflict the entire Muslim world. The lesson of Guantanamo — i.e. that you will turn innocent people into terrorists by treating them as such — is also being ignored.
The Obama Administration needs to step back from what it is doing. It must first recognize that Yemen is not a threat to the United States, must realize that it will not fix the country through the addition of American soldiers, and that the best thing to do when dealing with a complex and poorly understood situation is to leave it alone. Regarding airport and airline security, Washington must fix the failure to communicate and other disconnects in the system without throwing out the baby with the bath water, repairing what must be repaired and retaining what works. It must establish security standards that apply to everyone without appearing to accuse entire nations of being prone to terrorism. If it does all that, the ability of Americans and others to travel safely will be improved and the United States will avoid yet another tragic involvement in a faraway land where there is no vital national interest at stake.