Yemen 101

(AP / CBS)
After receiving relatively scant attention from the United States for most of the last decade, Yemen has emerged as the newest headline to rile the animal spirits of the chattering classes. But unlike earlier political divides, such as health insurance regulation or tax and fiscal policy, Yemen remains terra incognita in more ways than one. Despite their pretensions, few U.S. lawmakers have much more than a superficial acquaintance with this poorest country in the Arab world.

Of course, that hasn't stopped the usual crowd of politicos from hitting the show circuit to opine about proper policy for the region. Ever since the disclosure of a Yemeni al-Qaida connection to the crotch bomber, everybody's become an instant Yemen expert.

Case in point: Jim DeMint (R-SC), who appeared on CNN over the weekend to talk about U.S. national security. After cautioning against tainting the discussion with partisan politics, DeMint slammed the president for downplaying the risk of terror to the U.S. Asked to amplify on his remarks, DeMint let loose with a concatenation of contempt for Mr. Obama's national security cred.

"Well, it begins with not even being willing to use the word...Aside from the semantics, he's been completely distracted by other things...and he is not focused on building the security and intelligence apparatus of our country. The last administration - President Bush - made a huge mistake by sending the Yemese (sic) back - the core leadership of Al Qaeda now is made up of those folks who were at the Gitmo prison. We can't make that mistake again. So it's not just about this administration. It's about losing our focus on security and, I'm afraid, politics and political correctness has become front and center of this debate."

You don't say. Unfortunately, CNN's Gloria Borger did not ask DeMint about last month's U.S.-backed airstrike against an al-Qaeda training camp in southern Yemen. It would have been equally entertaining to have DeMint assess the change in U.S. counterterrorism aid to the "Yemenese." It was $4.6 million in 2006 (under George Bush) and $67 million last year (under Barack Obama.) By comparison, Sen. Joe Lieberman's recent comment - Iraq was yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war - seems like a model of enlightenment. Well, not really. But Lieberman's been reading the headlines and they do foretell a grim future for Yemen where the government is fighting a civil war against Shi'i Zaidi rebels while also dealing with a separatist movement in the south of the country. And then there's the danger posed by al-Qaeda. Unfortunately for Yemen, the troubles don't stop there.

* Local oil reserves are running out. That's a nightmare-in-waiting for Yemen when you consider that oil exports account for about 75% of the government's annual revenue and that the country already suffers from a 35 percent unemployment rate.

* The nation's water is being used up faster than it can be replenished. Some experts predict that Sanaa may earn a place in the record books as the first capital city to actually run out of water.

* About three fourths of the male population chew qat, a semi-narcotic plant. Scrambling to meet demand, Yemen's farmers predictably devote most of their arable land to cultivating qat, because it is a lot more profitable than other crops. The upshot: Hunger is widespread and most people now only get one square meal each day, according to the United Nations.

* Throw into the equation a "corrupt and repressive" government (according to the New York Times Dec. 31 editorial), and you've got the makings of a failed state, par excellence.

* Speaking of the government, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in charge since north and south Yemen agreed to unification in 1990. It's not clear whether Saleh will be eligible to run again in 2013 but so far there's nobody on the political horizon with the presence to lead a unified country. Take your pick: constitutional crisis or political void.

* Whoever does become president will inherit a country with a 3-plus percent annual population growth rate and that means Yemen's population will double to 40 million over the next couple of decades.

There are so many interlocking elements to consider - tribal, regional and religious - that superficial policy prescriptions aren't going to cut it. Writing about the mryiad complexities facing contemporary Yemen, the veteran Middle East watcher, Rami Khouri, put it this way: "Here in one package, at the end of this year we have all the major tension points of the contemporary Middle East converging in a single time and place -- Al-Qaeda vs. everyone in the world, Iran vs. Arabs, the United States vs. Al-Qaeda, Shiites vs. Sunnis, rich Arabs vs. poor Arabs, and the failing centralized modern Arab security state vs. it indigenous tendency to disintegrate into tribal or regional units."

That's the soundest advice I've heard so far this (new) year.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.