A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the war in Syria as being part of the long arc of Ottoman dissolution, impacted as it was by colonialism, Arab nationalism, the rise of extremism, and other factors. This wasn’t meant to be teleological, or to say that anything was inevitable. Decisions made after the modern fall of ancient empire could have diverted the course of history in any number of ways. But I think it is true that certain conditions are set by the past, whether these are the scars of cultural memory, institutional norms, geographical displacement, environmental relocations, and any number of factors that impact how we live. People act under these conditions, and can change them incrementally, but even “great men” are bound by time and place.
That’s the problem with looking at current events (or history) entirely as decisions made by elites in elegant offices. Those do matter, of course. But we have a tendency to look at those without understanding how those decisions are the outcome of the constraints and the possibilites presented.
That brings us to Yemen, where this is- or should have been- more clear than in most places. Yemen, especially in the north, was shaped by tribal customs developed over centuries. This isn’t a matter of “they were living in the past”; it’s just that government was set by cultural norms. (It’s the same thing in America; our devotion to the cult of states, as if these arbitrary riverine borders mean something, is what allows the weird chaos of the nomination process to seem somewhat normal). These norms meant wheedling and dealing with tribal leaders and other small groups. It was a very personal and transactional style of politics, based on intricate negotiations. Even a 30-yr autocrat like Ali Abdullah Salih spent most of his time personally placating and playing tribal leaders, depending on what the situation called for.
That’s why this recent report by Peter Salisbury for Chatam House is at once so correct, and so infuriating. (Link is the pdf, here’s the summary.) Salisbury outlines how the post-Salih transition process from 2012-2014 focused entirely on elites, the Hadis and the Houthis, especially in the context of the Middle East “cold war” between the Saudis and the Iranians. These are important factors of course, but in doing so, the rifts on the ground were ignored. What was really ignored were the conditions in which Yemeni politics were played. And because that was ignored, Salisbury argues, the end of the “big war” is just the stage for many little wars, or in his evocative phrase “a chaos state.” Local grievances, the maintenance of which was always the key to Yemeni politics, were ignored, and thus can fire up again.
Salisbury argues that we need to focus on ground-up approaches to nation building, and he is absolutely correct. It makes no sense to focus on what will appease the Sauds and the Iranians equally, and divide the country once again among the elites. What makes sense on the ground is the only way to establish even a rough kind of peace, and to try to staunch a bitter humanitarian disaster. It’s a lesson we fail to learn time and time again. Otherwise, it’s just epauletted men shaking hands on an empty stage while the theater burns down around them.