Remember the autumn of 2008? There were people at the US Treasury Department and The Federal Reserve and The White House who were sleeping two or three hours a night, trying to keep up with events and developments and news, as the financial system melted down. They looked like zombies. Their bosses looked like zombies. Some were so tired they couldn’t think, much less form coherent sentences.
Well, it’s the same story now, but different officials. The walled-eyed ones now work at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, the Department of defence, the National Security Agency and the National Security Council. What they are struggling to keep up with is the unravelling of virtually the entire Middle East, the all-but-certain collapse of the Pakistani government, the looming political/economic unravelling of the eurozone, the coming spring offensive of the Taliban in Afghanistan and God knows what all else.
At stake is a huge piece of the “developed” world’s energy supply, vast caches of sophisticated military weaponry, the security of Israel, an emboldened (or chastened) Iran and the very real possibility that at least one wing of Al Qaeda will emerge very much stronger than it is today.
These US officials won’t be sleeping any time soon. Events are firmly in the saddle and have not run their course. The President and his principal national security advisors have no clear strategy for dealing with all this chaos. So, it’s all reaction, all the time. Plan for the worst and hope for the best, if there’s any time to plan at all.
Nowhere is the absence of a US strategy clearer than in Yemen. There, a US-allied regime is on its way out. What replaces it is very much an open question. How that question is answered will have huge US national security implications. Bobby Ghosh Sana’a of Time magazine reports:
For the Obama Administration, which is struggling with the consequences of the toppling of other Arab dictators, Saleh’s predicament is especially worrisome. Impoverished Yemen (pop. 24 million) may be at the fringes of the world economy and Arab politics, but it punches well above its weight in global terrorism, as both a supplier of jihadists to holy wars abroad and a home for al-Qaeda’s most ambitious franchise. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was behind many major terrorist plots uncovered in the U.S. over the past two years, including last fall’s effort to use the global airfreight network to detonate bombs on board a Chicago-bound plane and the attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. The group also shelters the American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been in Yemen since 2004 and has been linked to several of these plots.
Saleh, who long ignored the terrorist threat, has recently been responsive to U.S. pressure to crack down: dozens of Yemeni soldiers have been killed in campaigns against terrorists. He has allowed the CIA to employ drone attacks against AQAP targets in Yemen, taking the blame when the strikes evoked popular outrage — a fact embarrassingly revealed by WikiLeaks in November. The Obama Administration doubled counterterrorism aid to $150 million in 2010, and U.S. special forces are helping train Yemeni troops. Regime change in Sana’a could jeopardize that cooperation and potentially take pressure off AQAP — a point that Saleh’s officials have been keen to make since the protesters began to press for his ouster. “If we go, this country will be wide open,” one official tells TIME, asking not to be named. “People who want to support these so-called revolutionaries should stop and ask themselves if these kids can protect the world from al-Qaeda.”
Yemen is just one of the countries in the Middle East and East Asia that is going haywire. The big one, Saudi Arabia, is directly in the crosshairs of its hated neighbour, Iran. The nuclear one, Pakistan, is in the crosshairs of a well-organised coalition of religious fanatics, a coalition of Pakistan’s own making. The longest-standing allied one, Israel, feels isolated and abandoned, as never before.
Figuring out what the United States of America can and will do to “manage” these events is now in the hands of a small group of sleepless US policy-makers. Mistakes will be made.
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