Taking the Wrong Stand
(2/2015) Like any major story, the terrorist attack against the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, presented a challenge to the news media: how to contextualize the event and explain why and how it happened in a way that informs constructive public discussion. For predictable reasons, it failed.
The majority of time spent covering the attack and its aftermath was focused on analyzing the motive of the attackers. Virtually without exception, the media latched onto the easiest, most gratifying explanation: that this was an attack on freedom of speech and expression.
This gross oversimplification resulted in weeks of self-righteous soapboxing over principles of freedom that nobody in the Western world disagrees with. And really, we didn't even get the easy moral argument right. There was an outpouring of uncritical support for overtly racist magazine that intentionally sought to provoke religious outrage. Imagine
if an attack like this had targeted the Westboro Baptist Church, the group led by Pastor Fred Phelps that famously picketed the funerals of slain U.S. soliders and blamed natural disasters on homosexuality. We would still condemn the violence, but would anyone start an #IAmWestboro hashtag?
Rather than wasting time pontificating on the "clash of civilizations" or the importance of free speech, more attention should have been paid to where the gunmen came from. As the manhunt in and around Paris unfolded, we learned that the gunmen had been trained by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP). The terrorist organization, based inside
Yemen, subsequently took credit for the attack. If true, this would signal a worrying capacity for AQAP to project its operations outside the region, threatening Europe as well as the U.S. homeland.
The Department of Homeland Security considers AQAP to be the Al Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt attacks against the United States, and has already failed in three attempts to use concealed explosives on U.S. targets since 2009. One might expect then that AQAP would earn a significant portion of military expenditure in the ongoing War on Terror,
but compared to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it looks more like a side hobby. Whereas the War on Terror's pricetag is measured in the trillions of dollars, Yemen has accounted for a paltry $1.4 billion in economic and military assistance since 2009.
Commensurate with this smaller financial commitment, U.S. policy in Yemen is rarely discussed or debated the way that its "boots on the ground" missions are. There is also evidence that the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria pulled attention away from operations in Yemen, the country perhaps best known as the testing ground where the United States
developed and greatly expanded its drone program.
Beyond the new ethical and legal issues posed by drones on the battlefield, there's a good reason that the Obama administration doesn't spend much time talking about the broader U.S. policy in Yemen: it's failing spectacularly, and there are no clear options now to turn things around. Meanwhile the news media spends little time discussing Yemen policy
because it is complicated and the tribal dynamics are foreign to most Americans. It's simply not as "sexy" as even an empty debate over free speech.
There is, however, a compelling story to be told about Yemen. It is surely the least understood member of the countries affected by the 2011 Arab Spring. The former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was backed by the United States under the assumption that he could maintain stability. Saleh attempted to turn the military support into political advantage
for his son, sparking protests and a fracturing of his party. He was eventually compelled to step down and turn over the country to a transitional caretaker government.
Yemen hosted a National Dialogue Conference that was hoped to set an example for democratic transtions elsewhere, but instead stalled and ended without reconciliation between groups jockeying for power. One of those groups, the Houthis, control large swaths of the country and took advantage of the disarray to launch an effective campaign gaining
territory and tribal loyalty in the north.
Last September, they seized control of the capital city of Sanaa. Last month, they surrounded the home of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who's main usefulness is to sign off whenever the United States wants to conduct a drone strike within Yemen's borders so that it's not a complete violation of its sovereignty. Instead of deposing Hadi on the
spot, they made political demands that would have further eroded his powers. He and his cabinet chose to resign, leaving the country without even the illusion of a functioning government.
With its tribal conflicts and power struggles between political elites, Yemen's problems may look to be its own doing, but the fingerprints of the United States and the Gulf states are all over its current problems. The reason their meddling has been so harmful is that America and Saudi Arabia are only focused on their own security interests, not the
broader interests of Yemen's 26 million citizens.
Yemen is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. According to a recent report from the World Food Program, ten million of those 26 million people could be categorized as severely food insecure or close to it. Like the other Arab Spring states it struggles with unemployment, especially for the young men who are lured into
extremist movements by the promise of adventure, a paycheck, and especially a sense of purpose. In the absence of real governance and with all attention going to either crisis management or the writing of a new constitution, there's no political body left that is capable of providing and regulating basic services.
In the end this becomes a familiar story in the ongoing discussion of U.S. foreign aid policy. Wouldn't a moderate investment in Yemen's economic development years ago have more than paid for itself when compared to the much larger cost of military intervention after the conditions have spiraled out of control?
What will it take for us to stand up and defend others' rights to have their basic human needs met with the same fervor that we assert our sacred right to insult their religious beliefs?
Read other article by Scott Zuke