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David A. Andelman: State of the Nation, But What About the World?

It was quite clear by the time President Obama got to the end of his State of the Union speech last night that it was very much—the state of America, not the state of the world.  Barely 10 minutes—roughly 900 of 7,500 words—were devoted in his hour-long address to global issues, a passing nod, an odd rhetorical flourish, a vague threat to America’s enemies—North Korea and Iran, al-Qaeda and the Taliban (not even by name, in the latter’s case). Controlling global warming? Good. Withdrawal from Iraq? Leaving behind a democratic government? Well, we shall see in the wake of the coming elections. Among the few accomplishments he cited? Thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan and a big multilateral conference opening in London today to prop up the government of President Hamid Karzai. But within hours, this latter president undercut Obama’s whole message, suggesting it would be five to ten years before his nation could stand on its own against its many enemies, foreign and domestic. No route home soon for those 30,000 additional men and women apparently.  So what was on the agenda of the American president, and what was not?   Certainly not the Middle East. Despite his stem-winding speech in Cairo nearly a year ago, and the appointment of a master envoy, George Mitchell, Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. “If we had anticipated some of [the] political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high,” Obama admitted to Time’s Joe Klein last week.   A quick laughline over global warming. (“I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change....”) But no mention of the buzz-saw he walked into in Copenhagen which all but collapsed, leaving environmentalists puzzled at best, bitter at least.   Global trade? A pledge to double U.S. exports in the next five years—and move toward some Doha accord. Hardly a message many of America’s trading partners would like to hear. And especially those who were somehow left out of the message entirely:   “And that's why we'll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia."  What happened to China? India? Brazil? Clearly straw men, purely passing cautionary tales: "China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting.”   Look out America, the world is out there breathing down our backs, waiting to steal our first-place position:   “These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. (Applause.)”   Nuclear disarmament? “The United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades.” When? No deadline. When they’re finished.
  And Iran?  “As Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise. (Applause.)” Which consequences, when and who will accompany us? Empty rhetoric does not go a very long way in Tehran or Qom.


THE INDEX — January 6, 2010

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Marianna Gurtovnik: Yemen on the Brink

The investigations of U.S. Army major Nidal Malik Hasan’s November 5 murder of 13 soldiers at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, and of the December 25 failed attempt by a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate a bomb inside a 300-passenger plane en route to Detroit, have revealed links between these terrorists and a spawning Al Qaeda network in Yemen. Major Hasan reportedly exchanged e-mails and sought spiritual guidance from a radical U.S.-born Islamic cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki, who grew up in Yemen. Mr. Abdulmutallab, for his part, said he received training and explosive devices from the Al Qaeda operatives during his four-month stay in Yemen last year. Yemen’s involvement in these terrorist acts has also shed light on its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom Washington urged to launch a vast antiterrorist operation, now underway in the volatile Arab nation. Mr. Saleh is a seasoned war horse. He served as North Yemen’s president for 12 years, before merging the north and south in 1990, following decades of colonial and ideological division. He has been president of this Sunni-dominated nation ever since, although the real extent of his authority is questionable. The government repeatedly clashed with separatists in the south through the 1990s, and the insurrection flared again in 2008. Moreover, violence has escalated in the country’s northwest, along the border with Saudi Arabia, and repeated attempts to quash these Shiite insurgents (led by Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi) have been largely unsuccessful. In the northwest, Al-Houthi insurgents crossed into Saudi Arabia last month, murdering two Saudi patrol guards and triggering a joint Saudi-Yemeni airstrike against guerrillas. Today, the government’s control is effectively limited to the areas surrounding the capital, Sana’a. Although newspapers and 24-hour news channels seem keen to highlight Yemen as the new front in the “war on terror,” the nation actually surfaced as a breeding ground for international terrorists in the early 1990s, when impoverished refugees escaping violence in neighboring Somalia were recruited by Al Qaeda in Yemen. In October 2000, Al Qaeda terrorists blasted a hole in the American Navy destroyer USS Cole harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. And, in September 2008, Al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, killing ten non-American citizens. For the most part, the Bush administration’s engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq prevented it from allocating resources to confront the burgeoning terrorist network in Yemen. One critical mark of escalation in the Bush administration’s counterterrorism tactics was a CIA-sponsored drone strike in Yemen at the end of 2002 that killed six Al Qaeda operatives, including Qaed Sinan Harithi, the suspected organizer of the USS Cole incident. Today, the reoccurrence of domestic terrorism puts pressure on Obama to eradicate the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula before it gathers strength and threatens the stability of that nation. Indeed, the “systemic problems” that President Obama referenced in his speech about intelligence failures leading up to Mr. Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing could just as well describe the state of affairs within Yemen. The country is plagued by numerous socioeconomic and political ills, including an excessive reliance on rapidly dwindling oil resources, severe water shortage, pervasive corruption, inter-regional tensions, and illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, and population growth rates that are among the highest in the Middle East. While protracted sectarian and territorial disputes have made the task of state-building increasingly difficult for Mr. Saleh, most of the problems the country faces today are the product of his own heavy-handed and short-sighted policies.

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