Obama's Yemeni odyssey targets China
By M K Bhadrakumar
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
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
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
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
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.