Commentary

Good Morning, Yemen? The Mouse That Roared Was Funnier

By Leon T. Hadar
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on January 6, 2010.

Say what you want about the neoconservative-driven U.S. military adventures and democracy promotion in the Broader Middle East, but in theory - again, the emphasis here is on theory or abstract thinking — it reflected the expectations that the United States could and should follow in the footsteps of Great Britain and attain Pax Americana in a region that has major geo-strategic significance (Persian Gulf), a lot of oil (Iraq), and even notable religious sites (the Holy Land) and a few Christian communities (Lebanon).

And I suppose that applying the historical analogies of post-Germany and Japan, one could have fantasized about democratizing societies that are so unlike Germany and Japan. Moreover, doing empire can be quite romantic. Recall former President George W. Bush discussing Afghanistan with American military and civilian personnel via teleconference: “It must be exciting for you, in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger,” he said. “You’re really making history, and thanks.”

We know how the British-made imperial Mideast production ended. I do not expect a happy ending to the current American remake. If anything, the notion that we are now about to expand our military involvement into Yemen by launching a new front in the “war on terror” in the poorest country in the Arab world, that is not a state but a collection of rival tribes and extended-families, that has proved to be beyond the control of global players (Britain; Russia) and regional players (Ottomans; Saudis; Egypt), and that has no strategic significance, no oil, no notable religious sites, not Christians, no nothing, is, well, mind-boggling.

And before you know, we are going to have experts on Yemen (hey, every dog has his day) showing up on television news shows, joined by lobbyists for foreign-aid, NGO types, human rights advocates, and let us not forget the “terrorism experts” and “military analysts” lecturing us that the time has come to shift our attention to Yemen - “attention” aka U.S. dollars and military forces.

This is not a figment of my non-interventionist mind. See, for example, this recent news story in USA Today:

“Although American officials have been saying for years that Yemen’s instability poses a terrorism threat, annual U.S. military and development aid to that country in the past decade has been less than $50 million, government records show, a fraction of the sums sent to its regional neighbors.

“It makes no sense,” said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Yemen has been on people’s radar for a long time. Pakistan gets a billion a year. The commitment of resources to Yemen doesn’t match the scope of the problem.”

And this bipartisan Yemen, Mon Amour:

“Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has pushed for more Yemen aid as chairman of the subcommittee that funds the State Department, added, “As long as Yemen wants our help in countering al-Qaeda, we should continue to make it a priority to find effective ways to support them.”

“Although Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, the United States was sending just a few million a year in development assistance before the 9/11 attacks, according to State Department budget records. In 2003, when the U.S. Agency for International Development re-opened its mission in the country after a seven-year absence, civilian aid to the country more than doubled, but remained a paltry $15 million, records show.

“This year, total State Department aid will be about $63 million, including $12.5 million to buy military equipment. Yemen got $67 million in military aid from the Defense Department last year, records show. This year’s amount is undetermined.

“Even after the increases, aid to Yemen pales compared with the $2.8 billion the Obama administration will send to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are at war, or even the $238 million slated for Lebanon, records show.

“The amount of aid going to Yemen is a rounding error,” said Richard Fontaine, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is now at the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank. The Yemeni government is facing a war in the north with Shiite rebels, separatist unrest in the south, and increasing poverty among the population of 24 million.

“The track record of U.S. civilian aid in Yemen is not good. In 2004, USAID awarded $13.5 million in agreements to two Washington-based contractors to improve Yemen’s education system. The contractors collected $2 million each in overhead, but the program “did not achieve its intended results,” a 2008 audit by the agency’s inspector general found.”

And all of this is because there is something called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And according to a report by the BBC, the group may have less members than the number of the residents in my apartment building, with “some experts say there are fewer than 50 fighters, while others believe there may be 200 to 300.” And BTW, most experts also agree that the group was formed after 2003 in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. So expect even more use of the Al Qaeda brand following our intervention in Yemen.

Bottom Line: You want some American “attention” $$$ Circulate reports that there is an Al Qaeda in [fill the space] and before you know, Uncle Sam who has been surviving thanks to the infusion of Chinese money, shows up with a nice economic stimulus package and American GI’s.

It all reminds me of that wonderful 1959 film, The Mouse that Roared (which was based on a novel by the same name) about the imaginary Duchy of Grand Fenwick decides that the only way to get out of their economic woes is to declare war on the United States, lose it — and then become a recipient of American foreign aid. A comedy repeating itself now as tragic history.

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy, international trade, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. He is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.