No, I am not deserting the president on this one either. Any country that is under siege by Al Qaeda is likely to have strategic and/or ideological interest to us. But it’s a big stretch to argue that we have a democratic interest in Yemen’s future. It will not be before hell freezes over that we may have such an interest in Yemen. That time is neither now nor tomorrow. And since history in the Arabian Peninsula moves in geological time, let’s stop deluding ourselves about another democratic ally.
Our interest in Yemen is strategic. Its territory straddles two thirds of Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier. Its land mass commands the Gulf of Aden and sits on the Arabian Sea. It dominates the narrow straits on the east of the lower end of the Red Sea, which itself leads northwards to Egypt, the Suez Canal. Sinai, Israel and Jordan. This is turf one would not want in bin Laden’s grasp. Enough said.
The deterioration of the situation in Yemen has been mind-boggling. Only months ago, the administration had been furloughing prisoners from Guantanamo to Yemen for ideological rehabilitation. Actually, it was folly then ... a risky squeeze out of a tight spot. The Obami finally realized this in the aftermath of the Abdulmutallab bloomers bomb try. They stopped. And, now, we are in something of a battle situation south of the empty quarter. Where our remaining prisoners will go--or whether they will go anywhere but stay put in the American hostel on Cuba’s tip--no one quite knows.
But, it seems, we now have to justify our Yemeni venture to some higher order, and my friend Tom Friedman has leapt to the task: “It’s All About Schools.” I hate to rag on Tom about anything and, given his close attention to the area, I fear ragging on him about the Middle East.
Still, I think he comes to his view of the Yemeni possibilities through the nostalgic memories of the elites. You might look at Pakistan through similar scopes. Certainly, Muhammad Jinnah, the very founder of Pakistan, saw a different and more civilized country than now bears the same name. Well, yes, as in Pakistan, so in Yemen. The proliferation of madrassas has neither enhanced real literacy nor scientific thinking.
Now, Tom cites one of his Yemeni friends, a former prime minister, wistfully recounting, “we studied Darwinism in my high school without challenge.” How come “without challenge?” Is this something to go gooey about? In any case, how many pupils studied Darwin in Yemeni high schools? (For that matter, how many really studied Darwin in American high schools?)
There are today American missiles and drones operating in Yemen. And, Lord knows, they are destroying targets other than Al Qaeda hideouts. Tom is rightly burdened by the damage of advanced war on an elemental society.
“So here is my new rule of thumb: For every Predator missile we fire at an Al Qaeda target here [he wrote this from Sana], we should help Yemen build 50 new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking--to boys and girls.”