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Unpacking Assumptions

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J. Dana Stuster, an intern at CNAS, has written about Yemeni President Saleh’s succession in The Atlantic. It’s worth unpacking: starting with a number of minor errors that unfortunately add up, the piece is representative of how the assumptions we make can artificially constrain our analysis.

In Yemen, people have an expression for their form of government. They call it “decorative democracy,” a poor disguise for the military autocracy that Yemen has had for decades. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has weathered 32 years in office, including assassination attempts, national unification, and civil war. In the early 1990s, he created the veneer of democratic institutions (including an “opposition party”) mostly for the purpose of courting foreign aid; now, with an affiliate of al-Qaeda festering in his country’s rural interior, Saleh felt his U.S. aid was secure enough to flirt with the idea of abolishing term limits.

This isn’t quite right. Saleh didn’t invent the “veneer of democratic institutions” any more than he invented South Yemen (from which many opposition parties, not just the one noted here, come). Islah, which is perhaps what Stuster is referring to, was formed outside of Saleh’s own party, the GPC, as an amalgam of tribal leaders and Islamists. Unlike Saleh’s GPC, Islah is multi-polar, despite the strong personality and occasional dominance of Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, its nominal leader. Anyway, the point is, Yemen has a thriving, diverse, and raucous opposition movement—it is not the cynical invention of the president. More importantly, these opposition parties were not invented to score foreign aid; a strong case can be made for Saleh massaging the threat of al Qaeda to increase foreign aid (and he has done so successfully the last three years), but not political opposition. The assumptions that underlie this paragraph are wrong, in other words, and thus create a poor foundation for the rest of the argument.

It might have worked were it not for the timing. Yemenis have staged their own protests for political reform in the shadows of Tunisia and Egypt, even naming February 3 their own “Day of Rage.” Saleh has disowned the constitutional amendment that would have abolished term limits, as well as rumors that he was grooming his son for the presidency, and on February 2 he announced that he will not seek another term when his current term expires in 2013.

This, too, rests on some questionable assumptions about Yemen. For one, the “Day of Rage” turned out to be anything but—it was more like a “day of mostly polite pro- and anti-government qat chews.” There is zero evidence to support the claim that the riots in Egypt and Tunisia “inspired” the protests in Yemen. So without those two critical assumptions, Saleh’s decision to rapidly back away from an unpopular decision loses most of its importance, thus undermining this paragraph’s main argument.

The rest of the piece devolves into Kremlinology—an outsider’s assessment of the strengths of various political figures inside and outside Yemen’s mainstream politics. It might be true, or it might now. Frankly, no one really knows, though I share Greg Johnsen’s skepticism of Ali Mohsen’s supposed ambitions. Johnsen also ably deconstruct’s Stuster’s misleading description of al-Zindani’s supposed connections to terrorism, none of which amount to more than rumors and guesswork.

At the end of the day, that is what we’re left with when discussing the post-Saleh political landscape. We have rumors (this guy did this, that guy likes that) and guesswork (he’ll probably do this, he’ll probably not do that). It makes a poor basis for analysis. Saying that Egypt and Yemen are similar because both have fragmented opposition movements is not only not very accurate but it draws a misleading analogy to simplify and gloss over what is, again, rumor and guesswork. Stating up front that that is all we’re working with is fine—there is nothing wrong with either rumors or guessing—but to present that as fact or informed analysis is, at best, misleading.

Further reading: Stacey Philbrick Yadav has written an excellent piece for the Middle East Report: “No Pink Slip for Salih: What Yemen’s Protests Do (and Do Not) Mean.” It is important in that it focuses on the political context of these protests, but highlights the role the U.S. plays in making Yemen’s politics worse off. “The US,” she writes, “does not seem to be listening to the opposition’s claim that meaningful political reform is the only sure path to more equitable and sustainable development.” It’s worth keeping that in mind as the new Kremlinologists dream of what future turmoil will engulf Sanaa.

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Written by Joshua Foust

February 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

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