There has been much talk about whether the recent Wikileaks leak of diplomatic cables will be a good thing or a bad thing. I would assume (and that is an assumption … which is why I used the word assume) that there would be some of both, some forward movement of progressive ideals including honest government and reasonably transparent diplomatic policies that value human rights and the environment, etc., and some damage to ongoing diplomatic processes or exposure of ammunition that can be used for nefarious purposes by nefarious figures and organizations. But, since some of that would have happened anyway (a leak of a cable is not the only way to embolden a terrorist, advance a philosophy, fix or complicate a diplomatic problem or solve an historical riddle) we may be better off not asking about the big and essentially unknowable picture, and focusing on individual cases. So, I’d like to look, in a preliminary way, at a couple of such individual cases
NPR news is reporting on two cables that some claim could “embolden Al-Qaida.” I’m going to assume (there I go again) that the decreasingly venerable NPR has thrown the phrase “embolden Al-Qaida” into the headline to increase revenues, and try to rephrase the question more accurately: Will two cables regarding Yemen have a net positive or negative effects on a) US international diplomacy; b) US relations in the middle east esp. vis-a-vis Yemen and related countries and c) Al-Qaida’s political position on the Arabian Peninsula vis-a-vis the current standing government in the eyes of the inhabitants of the region or other relevant parties?
In fact, we will focus mainly on the third issue, which is the core of the proposition made in the NPR piece, but the other two are to be kept in mind.
For a bit of context, though this should be obvious, Al-Qaida would like to replace the Yemeni government, currently supported by the US and several other moderate or non-Islamic countries, with itself. Also, a widespread criticism of the current government is that it is not all that Islamic (Shariah), and that it is corrupt. Both are true, and this is widely known but simultaneously unacknowledged, as is usually the case with these things.
There are two cables.
Cable 1: This describes a meeting between General David Petraeus and Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The US had just launched two predator drone strikes on local Al-Qaida types, in which co-lateral deaths had occurred. The Yemeni government had previously agreed to claim that such “bombs” are their own, provided by the US government but launched by the Yemeni. I assume (?) that this would allow the acts to be seen less as the activities of the evil Western crusader, strengthen the perception of bellicosity of the Yemeni regime (useful in tribal negotiations, I assume they assumed) yet allow for deniablity when a fragment of the weapon is found stamped “Made in Taiwan” (which would indicate a US weapon).
In the cable it is confirmed (discussed) that the ‘bombs’ are US owned and US fired, but that the Yemeni government will “… continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours…” The cable records one of President Saleh’s aides interrupting with a joke about how Saleh is lying to his own parliament about the air strikes.
As recorded in the NPR article, experts feel that this will not be a surprise to most people within the “inner circle” because it is known that the government of Yemen is corrupt and the relationship between the US and Yemen is either known or assumed. However, spreading this conformation of the relationship and the corruption to the tribal region could hotten up the collars of the local leaders up and down the country’s wadis. It would be an Al-Qaida recruiting tool.
Is this a valid complaint? Unlike the real mythbusters, we can’t test this idea at this time using any laboratory or even logical methods. However, I would suggest that the claim that this would be a recruiting tool is valid, but that the value of the recruiting tool is limited. It depends on what else is going on. This could be more of an “It’s the economy, stupid” situation than anything else, meaning you can talk about philosophy and policy all you want, what is really important is [fill in the blank with the current on the ground important issue].
If the tribal leaders are content to walk the line between being friendly with al-Qaida and the government at the same time, this is not going to move them. If they or their people feel inclined to move more in one direction or another, this cable could be accordingly ignored or used as a focal point. This cable is probably icing on the cake. That means, if you like cake, it’s not important, but if you like icing, it is.
What is the positive side of this particular leak? I was struck at the blatant use of misinformation and denial. This seems to be the key “diplomatic” strategy exposed in this case. I suppose I don’t have a problem with disinformation as a tool in some case, but for years, since the early Reagan administration, disinformation has been one of the major bludgeons with which US diplomats have shaped (hammer-like) Mideast policy. For instance, it is likely that many terrorist events facilitated and/or paid for by leaders or operatives based east of the Suez were blamed (by the Reagan administration) on Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, in part because it is easy to pin crazy terrorist activities on a crazy-looking guy, in part to move blame away from critically important underground allies such as Syria, and in part because Gaddafi was entirely out of the oil business as far as US interests were concerned, because he decided that Libya would not be an Oil-Barron state.
I strongly suspect that misinformation has been misused, and overused, as a tool. This cable exemplifies a case of it. I don’t think this cable demonstrates why misinformed is bad, so I don’t think this cable will lead to pressure to reduce the use of that strategy, but it may play a role in identifying it as a problem and ultimately reducing its use.
Cable 2: This cable records a conversation between President Saleh and US counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, regarding smuggling across the Djibouti border. In the conversation about smuggling of drugs and weapons, whiskey is brought up, and the President jokes about how the illegal whiskey traffic is fine with him as long as it is good whiskey. In theory, this would upset strict adherents to Shariah law, and as noted above the claim that the government is insufficiently Islamic (as in Shariah) is a tool in the al-Qaida toolkit and a source of discontent.
The Yemeni leader’s disdain for Shariah law may be relevant in some cases, but as with the first cable, the degree to which it matters that Yemen is run by a whiskey-drinking faker may be vary with context. However, I’m going to call this myth busted at least for the near to medium future, until things change a great deal in Yemen.
Yemen is a collection of small tribal units that are sufficiently disdainful of the overarching government that the religiosity of that government is not especially important. Moreover, key tribal leaders in the Yemeni countryside probably gain significant political and social power because of their own high religious status, and having a state that is not especially holy may enhance their positions. A strict Shariah overlord would be a disadvantage to them.
Among the tribal units there are tribes that specifically watch over key religious sites, or that control pilgrimage routes between such sites. It is strict Islamic law that the pilgrimage should not be interfered with, and that pilgrims need to be cared for, helped along their way, and so on. As a result, certain factors become important: a) the presence of multiple very important pilgrimage sites in the Yemen interior and b) the complications that arise when neighbors may be in a Hobbsian state of “warre” (not necessarily fighting at any given moment but on the edge of unfriendliness, feudal style) in a system where all people, regardless of who is an ally of whom, must be allowed free passage.
As a result of this, the tribes exist in a complex hierarchy of shared responsibility and differential religiosity. Also, the social and political tools to allow enemies to put aside their differences for pragmatic reasons are very much in place and used on a daily basis. The idea that a central government, which has almost nothing to do with anything that ever happens on a day to day basis, has a low level of religiosity is probably unimportant or a mild advantage to the Wadi-based tribal leaders, as long as that government plays its expected role (mediating between hostage takers and oil companies, for instance). In fact, given the link between religion and place in Yemen, since the “government” is an entity unfixed to a holy place or a pilgrimage, or to any historically important religious figure to begin with, it is probably not expected to be especially Shariah. As long as the government does not locally interfere with Shariah, then who cares what it does?
It is probably worth mentioning something about the geography of Yemen. Yemen is a long narrow country with a long coast line. Several roughly parallel large wadis extend from the coast into a raised arid plateau, bifurcating into a network of smaller wadis as they rise into the interior. When rain falls, much of it ends up draining down the wadis, and for thousands of years a system of small dams and canals has gathered and captured this rain for use in limited local agriculture and for keeping stock. Most of the “tribal” people in the region live up and down these wadis, along which are the aforementioned sacred sites. Meanwhile, over the centuries, there has been varying degrees of trade, via cities at the openings of the wadis along the coast, with the outside world. The trade between villages up the wadi and other points in the Middle East, the coast of Africa, and points east in the Indian Ocean has historically been more important than what is going on, say, two or three wadi’s away. Possibly connected to this, and certainly important, is the fact that as various external forces have exerted control over this part of the Saudi peninsula, local groups have generally resisted or ignored this control. (I’m basing much of this on the material written by Yemen Scholar Lynn Newton.)
If you read the NPR article, there is at least one unnoticed but important irony. It is noted that the talk about President Saleh’s un-Shariah interest in Whiskey will get around because Yemeni men have a daily afternoon ritual of Khat chewing.
“The fact that every day, there is a built-in block of hours during khat chews for people to get together and talk and discuss, means this message will get out there,” Boucek said. “I am sure this will be the essential part of discussions for khat chews for the coming weeks.”
So, let’s sit around and chew the narcotic substance while we complain about somebody who sits around drinking a narcotic substance. I am not surprised that the Irony is lost on Western pundits and reporters, but I’m guessing it will not be lost on the Yemeni Khat chewers, and that irony will likely temper their negative attitude abut Saleh’s drink.
Myth 1: Exposure of lies about US use of missiles in Yemen will strengthen Al-Qaida. Unconfirmed. The blithe US use of disinformation, which has been a major problem in US-Mideast relations since George Schultz decided it should be our number one policy tool, may become less popular, which will be a good thing. The use of this information as a recruiting tool is highly questionable.
Myth 2: Saleh’s whiskey drinking habits will annoy Yemeni people and turn them against the government. Busted. The tribal Yemeni were already well aware of their own religious purity relative to others, including the government, and in fact, this is an important source of their political power.
Apologies to Mythbusters.