Whack-A-Mole and Priorities

It seems like the newest hot spot in Terrorist Whack-A-Mole: Global Edition is Yemen. I’m pretty confident there aren’t a lot of observers in the United States who know much about it, as evidenced by the strange framing of this article in the New York Times on the diplomatic challenges of working with the country.

SANA, Yemen — The United States is quickly ramping up its aid to Yemen, which Washington sees as a revived new front against Al Qaeda. But one of the most delicate tasks will be managing the relationship with the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has filled his government with numerous members of his family and who wants to ensure that his son Ahmed succeeds him, Yemeni officials, analysts and Western diplomats say.

Well, certainly that’s not helpful, but we don’t get to the real rub until several paragraphs later.

Mr. Saleh presents the Obama administration with a problem that is all too familiar in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is amenable to American support, but his ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy has limited reach. And his willingness to battle Al Qaeda, which he does not view as his main enemy, is questionable.

Much of Yemen is in turmoil. Government forces on Monday killed two militants suspected of being with Al Qaeda. There is another round of rebellion in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south. In important provinces where key oil resources are and where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is strong, government troops and the police largely remain in their barracks or in the central cities. Order outside the cities is kept by tribal chiefs, with their own complicated loyalties.

In other words, our objective interests in Yemen do not align well with those of Yemen. This, much more than Ali Abudal Saleh’s penchant for promoting family members, dims prospects for fruitful cooperation. While it’s likely the U.S. can entice Yemen to more vigorously pursue Al Qaeda within it’s own borders by significantly boosting aid, it’s not really clear what this gets us in the long term when you consider that one of Al Qaeda’s motivating principles is fighting corrupt governments that are supported by the United States. Finally, it’s not like there aren’t any number of other failed states to which Al Qaeda can head to hatch their next crotch bomber.

I’m not suggesting that we should simply ignore our interest in Yemen, but it does highlight the difficulties inherit to a highly activist foreign policy. If the United States seeks to project its power all across the globe, we will have to understand that the trade offs, both in terms of resentment bred abroad and in the actual cost of these undertakings, which divert resources from domestic priorities to arguably minimal concrete gain. Think about health care. Studies show that 45,000 Americans die annually owing to lack of health insurance, yet there’s considerable disagreement about the value of a universal health bill that would cost $87.1 billion per year and actually lower the deficit. Now consider that that in 2010, we will spend literally 10 times that figure funding the Department of Defense — not to mention even more time and money towards TSA — to what demonstrated value, exactly? The crotch bomber doesn’t hold a candle to the suffering and death caused by our health care crisis.

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