Obama's Yemeni odyssey targets China
By Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, atimes
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.
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Yemen and the War of the Worlds
Fears real and imagined
By Francesco Sisci
China's problems are not all internal. On the outside, China's rise has created plenty of fears, some small, some large.
Among the small fears are those commonly found among Americans who see China as a second wave of the Yellow Peril that scared the US in the 1980s, when it was thought that Japan would soon take over North America. In this new scenario, American workers see jobs migrating to China because of investment going there; at the same time, China has become
America's largest creditor, one of the countries that, by buying US bonds, keeps the US afloat.
Thus China is seen as a modern version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens' caricature of early industrial development in England. It is a tale of one country stealing jobs and leaving common people unemployed while at the same time being the stingy financier bankrolling America's profligate debts, and possibly awaiting the occasion to call everything in and send the US into bankruptcy.
However, these are only small fears, no matter how acutely they are felt. These perceptions could easily be addressed and modified. After all, even Scrooge had a soft side, as all kids are reminded when reading A Christmas Carol.
Furthermore, clear minds know that present-day China is not 1980s Japan; job migration is not confined to China, it is a global and complex process: jobs also go to Mexico, Bangladesh, Africa et cetera. As for credit, China bankrolls the US, but it is the US that spends too much and saves too little. Besides, with so much credit in China's hands, the trouble is not with the US, the debtor, but with China, which cannot call in such an enormous debt without endangering Beijing's own financial and economic balance.
But there are four larger issues at play that make the shadow of Scrooge more substantive.
The size of China and its population
China is one of the largest countries geographically and has the largest population. India's population is nearly as large and growing faster - it will overtake China in a few decades. Already the Indian subcontinent as a whole has more than 1.5 billion inhabitants, more than China, which is still below the 1.4 billion mark.
However, India's population is divided along many lines. There are religious divides (Hindu or Muslim, to reckon only the two largest religions of the subcontinent), ethnic-linguistic divides (Indo-European in the north and Dravidian in the south), and "national" divides (the Bengalis, although Indo-European, stand out as a distinct nation). Dozens of official languages split the country. The result is a maze of many differences in India, whereas China looks quite unitary. About 95% of its population calls itself ethnic Han. Of China's other 55 ethnicities, only two create real problems to the largely Han state, the Tibetans and the Uighurs, who together make up only about 1% of the total population of China.
Chinese, linked by language and culture, are by far the single largest concentration of people in a limited area who share common roots and thus a common destiny. And they make up more than 20% of the world population - a mass that is both vast and compact enough to control the world.
Speed of change and development
This mass is also developing very quickly. In the past 30 years, it maintained an average economic growth rate of almost 10% a year. At this pace, the economy doubles every eight years, and thus in 32 years it will have grown to 16 times the size it was in 1978, at the beginning of the reforms. At this rate, in some 20 years, when it will be eight to 16 times as big as it is now, it will have overtaken the United States. In 1840, at the time of the First Opium War, China's gross domestic product was more than 30% of the world's. To reach that level again it could take decades, maybe about 60 years, yet to reach the per capita GDP of the average Western level, China will need to keep growing very fast for maybe a century.
Up to the 19th century, China kept itself isolated. This time it is overflowing into the rest of the world, with purchases and exports in every corner of the globe. In 2009, China became the world's largest exporter, and Chinese people are opening businesses, restaurants and other enterprises everywhere. It is a whole different ball game than in the 19th century.
The changes to global politics and economics that these projections imply are mind-boggling and impossible to compute.
The only certain thing is that the changes brought by China's rise will dwarf the changes brought by the discovery of America in 1492. Only an invasion by extraterrestrials or the colonization of Mars could be bigger. For the West, and particularly for Europe, it could be the end of a world view centered on itself, something akin to the end of the Roman Empire.
China could in a few decades become the driving economy of all Asia, as Asian economies are growing around China. That means that a continent that is home to 60% of the world population will be the center of the world. This could further spur China's growth to reach the Western standard of per capita GDP, and total GDP as big as 50% of global GDP - a record China may have reached in the past but which now, in a globalized economy, could mean much more. The United States had more than 50% of global GDP at the end of World War II, when the rest of the world had been bombed to near death and lay waste.
Yes, China could achieve the goal of concentrating half of the global wealth without firing a shot, but what are the implications? Nobody knows, and everybody can only trust the Chinese who say "we will do nothing in haste". Certainly, as we have seen, they have no interest in doing anything in a rush, but they themselves do not know what will happen. Thus we have fear of the unknown, made even more scary as China is not "one of us".
An alien civilization
From a Western perspective, no civilization is more distant and more different than that of the Chinese. The ancient Egyptians and Babylon soon merged with the Greek civilization that inspired and was integrated into the Roman tradition. The Persians were set apart, but were a constant enemy and threat to the Roman Empire. Islam is a religion of the same God of the Jews and of the Christians, who dominate Europe and the West. The Indian civilization remained further away, but it has been in contact with the West since the time of Alexander the Great; besides, it is an Indo-European culture: its pantheon and its earliest myths share the same ancient linguistic roots as the Greco-Roman world.
China is very different. It was isolated for the whole first millennium of historical development. Its earliest proven and massive foreign influence came in the 1st century AD, with the arrival of Buddhism from India. The religion moved only east and not west, finally almost disappearing from the subcontinent while evolving and thriving in China, thus making China even more odd compared with the West.
Its sing-song language, its ideographic script, its lack of religion in the Western sense, its lack of a systematic pantheon, even its use of chopsticks and not the hands (long before forks and knives became standard in the West) for eating made China distant from the West. Even without considering that China for centuries kept to itself and was not interested in joining the trade rush the Europeans started after the discovery of America, China was, and still is to Europeans and their descendants, the closest thing to Mars there is on Earth.
Furthermore, unlike other civilizations, such as the pre-Columbian American peoples or those in Africa, which were easily wiped out by the sophisticated onslaught of disease, crosses and gunpowder, China had a resilient civilization, hard to put down.
|The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, issued warnings by announcing that Russia will start to build offensive weapons to counter American global aggression.|