Brzezinski doctrine on trial
There is an old Indian saying that the best way to keep your chicken safe will be by putting the wolf on guard at the roost ladder. The US president Barack Obama and the new leadership in Riyadh are locked in a comparable situation. The US desperately needs Saudi cooperation to address the crisis in Yemen.
Yet, it is a well-established fact that the new king of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and the deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef he just appointed within hours of taking over as the ruler have had a colorful past of dubious dalliances with the al-Qaeda groups operating in Afghanistan. This was in line with Saudi Arabia’s traditional approach to terrorism – hunt down the Islamist militants at home as if they are mad dogs, while at the same time feeding them and setting them loose on foreign turfs in furtherance of Saudi (and American) regional policies – of which the ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan was the classic example.
It is inconceivable that the US intelligence did not know about the role of Salman and Nayef in supporting the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The big question, of course, has always been why the US nonetheless had looked away. The answer is clear: it was actually the then US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s brainwave (as he himself later admitted publicly) to use ‘jihad’ as the flag carrier of geopolitics in the Hindu Kush. These contradictions are once again welling up to the surface in the Yemen crisis.
Today, however much he may respect Brzezinski as a guide and mentor on contemporary world politics («Grand Chessboard»), for Obama himself politically, the crisis in Yemen has the potential to snowball into a showdown with the Republican-dominated Congress and derail the US’ talks with Iran and wreck his entire Middle East agenda.
Only a few days ago, Obama had hailed Yemen in his State of the Union address as a successful example of his counterterrorism strategy to fight militant groups from a distance without putting ‘boots on the ground’ – through drone attacks. That may come to haunt him.
But, speaking in Delhi last Sunday at a media briefing, Obama insisted that he would persist with the same approach as before in Yemen: «What I’ve said is, is that our efforts to go after terrorist networks inside of Yemen without a occupying U.S. army, but rather by partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government, is the approach that we’re going to need to take… The alternative would be for us to play whack-a-mole every time there is a terrorist actor inside of any given country, to deploy U.S. troops. And that’s not a sustainable strategy.
«So we’ll continue to try to refine and fine-tune this model, but it is the model that we’re going to have to work with, because the alternative would be massive U.S. deployments in perpetuity, which would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems than it would potentially solve».
Obama is spot on. This is a realistic approach, given the US’ severe limitations today in opening new trillion-dollar wars in the Muslim Middle East such as in Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan in 2001. However, Obama didn’t elaborate how he will do that. His argument is simple: ‘TINA’ – or, ‘There Is No Alternative’.
But then, the issue is more complicated than that. To quote Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute, «If southern Yemen were to secede, it could make the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean more lawless. For Saudi Arabia, the events in Sana mean Riyadh must increasingly cope with two fronts: Sunni ISIS forces to the north, and Shiite Houthi forces – in Saudi terms, Iranian proxies – to the south».
Indeed, the US officials confirmed on Thursday that Houthi militia are in control of the intelligence and military branches with which the CIA coordinates its operations against al-Qaeda in south Yemen. Clearly, the CIA finds itself between the rock and a hard place.
From a tactical angle, the Houthis are the only force available to seriously take on the al-Qaeda groups in Yemen and Washington regards the Yemeni branch as the most dangerous affiliate of al-Qaeda active currently. But the Saudis will not easily countenance a US outreach to the Houthis even for tactical reasons and in any case the Houthis also claim to be ‘anti-American’.
Paradoxically, the US is finding itself on the same page here with an improbable company – Iran and the Houthis (and the Hezbollah which supports the Houthis), since al-Qaeda is their common enemy. Interestingly, in his entire media statement in Delhi on Sunday, Obama never once put the blame on Iran or the Houthis for causing the crisis in Yemen. It stands to reason that the US intelligence has already opened lines of communication directly to the Houthis – something that would have been opposed tooth and nail by late King Abdullah, but Salman and Nayef may learn to live with.
Viewed from another perspective, the transition in Sana’a three years ago was worked out with a mandate of the United Nations Security Council. Russia, in fact, played a constructive role to avert turmoil in Yemen under the rubric of the Arab Spring. Obama said in Delhi that he would seek a resolution of the present crisis in Yemen through a «constitutional process». Presumably, he might like to go back to the drawing board in the UN Security Council. However, so much has changed in the past 3-year period and the US repaid Russia’s help in such theatres as Yemen (or Syria’s chemical weapons) with a coup and regime change in Ukraine.
At any rate, the impasse in the US’ counterinsurgency strategy in Yemen is about to generate a tidal wave of criticism in the American opinion regarding Obama’s Middle East policies – Arab Spring, Syria, Islamic State and so on. This is a moment King Abdullah would have most certainly relished, as the focus in the unfolding debate in the US will inevitably come to be on Iran’s surge as regional power – thanks, allegedly, to Obama’s perceived policy of ‘appeasement’ of Tehran.
To be sure, the right-wing criticism has already begun. Typical is the incendiary fusillade fired by Charles Krauthammer on Fox TV in the weekend: «The question is whether Iran has influence over the Houthis in Yemen, and the administration pretending otherwise is simply the continuation of denying reality... The Saudis know the region and they are scared to death because Iran in their north, with a belt of states – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – coming under Iranian control, and now an Iranian control through a proxy in Yemen, they are encircled. Our only allies in the region – the Gulf states and the Jordanians – are essentially encircled by now Iranian-dominated, or highly-influenced, states».
That may sound alarmist, but it underlines the need for Obama to anticipate that the aggravating Middle East crisis may well turn out to be the most contentious foreign-policy issue in the next US presidential elections – and the night of the long knives may be just about beginning.
The leading neocon politician-diplomat, John Bolton has signaled that in the ensuing debate over the Yemeni crisis, Obama will come under fierce pressure to jettison his engagement policy toward Iran: «When the United States walks away from the Middle East, it’s a further invitation to chaos, and that’s exactly what we’re getting… This is an absolute disaster… It’s a policy of appeasement that President Obama has pursued vis-a-vis the Iranians and the nuclear weapons program. And you will see the fruit of appeasement in short order if we sign this deal».Now, it is an open secret that behind Bolton stands the powerful Israeli lobby, which commands formidable bipartisan influence in the Congress and the political class – with Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton alike – and has been moving heaven and earth to stall a US-Iranian deal. All in all, it comes as no surprise that Obama decided without a second thought to forgo a visit to the Taj Mahal, the eternal monument of love in Agra, India, and to instead head for Saudi Arabia. Life and death take precedence over love.