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Washington Monthly: Uncle Ali

February 25, 2010

The March/April issue of Washington Monthly will be available on newsstands this week. Go buy it and make me look good.

In the mean time, read it here. The first few paragraphs is below, but it’s a little too long for a Sana’a Bureau especial:

Yemen is prettier than it looks on TV. If you drive the length of this rugged nation—from the border with Saudi Arabia in the north to the sparkling turquoise of the Gulf of Aden in the south—the landscape outside your window will slip from something resembling New Mexico, to West Texas, to Baja California, until finally you’ll arrive in a place that is as desolate and craggy as the moon. Somewhere around Qa’tabah, a crumbling town a hundred-odd miles south of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, the ubiquitous portraits of President Ali Abdullah Saleh—plastered on billboards and storefronts and gas station pumps—will slowly give way to a smattering of South Yemen flags hung from bedroom windows and painted on boulders, an open act of defiance against the government up north. Yemen is perhaps more complicated than it looks on TV, too.

After a Yemen-based al Qaeda cell took responsibility for a Nigerian would-be terrorist’s botched airline bombing on Christmas Day, American newspapers and television channels were flooded overnight with images of Yemen—a stark, ancient nation awash in tribes and fundamentalism and AK-47s. Americans collectively groaned. Really? This again? It was all too familiar: a country—the cracked heel of the Arabian Peninsula—with a forebodingly stark landscape, loosely ruled by a weak central government and a patchwork of tribal sheikhs, the newest gang of al Qaeda operatives convening in hideouts at the end of long, dirt roads. In Jon Stewart’s words, “Can’t we get in a war with paved countries?”

Of course, only Joe Lieberman actually wants to go to war with Yemen—the Obama administration, for its part, has made it quite clear that the United States has no intention of invading the country. In any case, after stretching its military capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq and losing its credibility with most of the Muslim world over the last decade, the U.S. doesn’t have the counterterrorism options in Yemen that it might have had in the past. This time around, the U.S. will rely almost entirely on Yemen’s President Saleh to do the fighting—which is a little like tapping Al Capone to run Neighborhood Watch. Read more.

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