How the US created the “Iran-backed Houthis”
Plus: AI jobocalypse update. Israel’s global opinion problem. Global baby-making crisis. And more!
Before the US started striking Houthi targets in Yemen last week, it had spent most of the past decade helping Saudi Arabia strike Houthi targets in Yemen. Ever wonder why?
An answer favored by the Blob is that America has long opposed the Houthis because they are “proxies” for Iran, a country America considers a threat. This turns out to be, like so many Blob-approved narratives, misleading. And the real story turns out to be hauntingly reminiscent of the real story behind so many US foreign policy misadventures. Namely: What starts as threat inflation winds up as self-fulfilling prophecy.
After 9/11, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh helped the US fight al Qaeda militants in Yemen, and in return his government got US money. But around 2005, as the al Qaeda threat faded, so did the US funding. Saleh needed a new fundraising pitch.
He had an inspiration:
Saleh faced a Houthi insurgency in northern Yemen. If he could convince the US, and for that matter Saudi Arabia, that they, too, should feel deeply threatened by the Houthis, maybe he could get them to assist and subsidize his fight for self-preservation! Conveniently, the Houthis were Shiite Muslims, and so were most Iranians—and Saleh knew that the US and Saudi Arabia considered Iran a threat.
Here we’ll let Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen (featured in last week’s Earthling) pick up the story, as he relayed it in a podcast conversation in 2015, a few months after US-supported Saudi air strikes on Yemen began: “He [Ali Abdullah Saleh] said, ‘Look, you guys have a Shia problem, I have my own Shia problem here in the north, and in fact the Houthis are actually taking support from the Iranian government.’ ” (Presumably Saleh didn’t emphasize the fact that the Zaidi variant of Shia Islam practiced by the Houthis is quite different from the kind of Shia Islam practiced in Iran.)
A question arises: Were the Houthis really getting support from the Iranian government?
Johnsen says: “I don’t think there was a whole lot of evidence to suggest that the Houthis were actually receiving much in the way of support. But over the years this has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the Saudis and the US and the Yemen central government have continued to sort of bang this drum, and they pushed the Houthis so far into a corner that the Houthis have essentially opened themselves up to taking money… to taking training, to taking weapons and different things from the Iranian government.”
Even after years of support from Iran, the Houthis weren’t necessarily Iranian proxies, Johnsen said in 2015. “I don’t think that Tehran has any sort of command and control over the Houthis at this point. The Houthis are going to do whatever they view to be in their best interest, but they’re perfectly willing to open their hand and take support from Iran.”
The Saudi attacks on Yemen would continue—with US support in the form of arms, intelligence, and logistics—for seven years, killing thousands of civilians and, in conjunction with a blockade, ushering in a humanitarian disaster. The Houthis, meanwhile, would make gains in Yemen’s civil war until they controlled much of the country. They would not come out of that experience with a deep love for America. And presumably, their years of reliance on Iranian arms to fend off the Saudi assault increased Iran’s leverage over them, even if the word “proxy” has remained an oversimplification of the relationship.
So, all told, the story Saleh had told the Americans and Saudis as part of his fundraising pitch is now closer to being true—thanks partly to the fact that the Americans and Saudis bought it.
Are you among those who doubt that artificial intelligence will bring great benefits to humankind? Well check out this headline from the Independent in Britain: “AI can help find caves on Mars for future astronauts to live in, scientists say.”
Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, this week brought evidence that one much-discussed downside of AI—job displacement—could threaten low-skill and high-skill workers alike:
(1) Sam’s Club said it will replace the human receipt checkers who currently man its exits with “computer vision and digital technology” that looks at products customers bring through exit portals and verifies payment. The system is already operating at 10 of Sam’s Club’s 600 locations.
(2) Google unveiled Articulate Medical Intelligence Explorer (AMIE), a chatbot that diagnoses illness. To test AMIE, researchers had people play sick patients and converse via text either with AMIE, a human doctor, or an AMIE-assisted human doctor. The “patients” then rated things like empathy, while experts rated accuracy of diagnosis. The good news for doctors: Working with AMIE improved their performance. The bad news: AMIE did even better on its own.
Of course, there are upsides. AMIE promises to bring more affordable and better health care. And exit bots will cut Sam’s Club’s costs, presumably keeping prices down.
Still, if the job displacement wave is big, things could get turbulent. And, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund, nearly 40 percent of jobs worldwide are “exposed” to artificial intelligence.
By itself, “exposure” isn’t bad news. Though in some cases (as with the Sam’s Club receipt checkers), a kind of job will disappear, in other cases the people who do the job will get a productivity boost from AI.
But even “higher productivity” isn’t as rosy as it sounds. It means you need fewer workers to produce a given amount of output, so some workers may lose their jobs unless demand for the output grows. As for wages: the remaining workers may get some of the productivity gains in the form of higher incomes—especially if they’re highly and unusually skilled in using AI. But, in cases where using AI doesn’t require rare skill, wages may drop as the pool of people seeking the job expands.
The IMF report says the impact of AI will be especially big in advanced economies—both for better and for worse—owing to the “prevalence of cognitive-task-oriented jobs.” And economic inequality could grow both between and within nations, as technologically developed countries, and tech-savvy workers within each country, disproportionately reap AI’s rewards.
Below is a big-picture graph from the report. Owing to the kinds of nuances and uncertainties noted above, the meaning of the labels “high complementarity” and “low complementarity” are a bit fuzzy. Roughly speaking, you can think of their import for workers this way: “high” (red) means “having a pretty good chance of staying employed and maybe even enjoying a wage increase” and “low” (pink) means “having a less good chance of staying employed, and a higher chance of seeing your wages drop.”
Apparently China’s one-child policy wound up discouraging childbearing in twice as many ways as the Chinese government intended. At least, that’s the New York Times’s explanation for why China’s population declined in 2023 for the second year in a row—eight years after the limit of one child per family was lifted, and despite tax breaks and housing subsidies designed to incentivize baby-making. (Not to mention local-government-sponsored matchmaking services.)
The one-child policy, in effect from 1980 to 2015, created “generations of young only-child girls who were given an education and employment opportunities—a cohort that turned into empowered women who now view Beijing’s efforts [to encourage childbirth] as pushing them back into the home,” writes the Times.
That’s plausible. During the one-child era, many parents no doubt invested more in the education of their only child than they could have invested in each of several children. Plus, steering educational resources toward sons and away from daughters—a common parental practice in many societies—isn’t an option when you don’t have any sons.
So China may have, in effect, taken a shortcut to the “demographic transition,” which occurs when developing countries, as they get more affluent, see birth rates drop in part because of the rising socio-economic status of women. The demographic transition is one reason birth rates have fallen globally, a trend illustrated by the graph below.