The Duck of Minerva

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Fueling the fire in Yemen.

January 12, 2010

My friend, Stacey Philbrick Yadav, has just posted an interesting take on American policy in Yemen at Foreign Policy. She writes:

I’ve been traveling regularly to Yemen since 2004, conducting research on the relationship between Islamists and leftists in Yemen’s opposition parties. Throughout this time, I have maintained correspondence with Yemeni journalists and political activists from a wide range of ideological positions. They are united in their concern about expanding U.S. involvement in Yemen, understanding just how badly it is likely to turn out for them and their country.

In part, Yemeni reformers are wary because such assistance has already contributed to radicalization. The use of unmanned drones, for example, goes back to 2002 at least. The combination of the perceived infringement on Yemeni sovereignty and high civilian death tolls caused by drone strikes has unquestionably helped fuel anti-American sentiment. Now, my Yemeni sources worry the Saleh regime will use additional military funds to crack down on legitimate political dissent and pad its coffers, rather than fighting actual terrorists and providing desperately needed services and infrastructure….

…The United States’ interest in Yemen has clearly been piqued. But information and analysis lag far behind this interest. As a Yemeni official told me, “The guys in D.C. aren’t creative”; they throw money at the problem rather than working to solve it. In Yemen, Saleh is part of the problem. Clear policy alternatives might not be available yet — but writing a blank check will certainly do nothing but fuel the radicalization the United States seeks to fight.

I think the last point is telling. We’ve now seen a lot of the “War on Terror” talking heads follow the headlines to the Yemen situation peddling their standard fare: more U.S. military assistance and support. But the early reporting on Yemen in the past few weeks reveals how little the US seems to know about the country.

Mark Landler wrote a piece over the weekend in the NYTimes and added this:

In an overburdened State Department, there are only a handful of Yemen experts, compared with 30 people from nine government agencies who are assigned just to the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke.

Washington’s limited insight into Yemen was on display Thursday, when the White House’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, expressed surprise that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was sophisticated enough to carry out a plot against an American jetliner. In fact, Mr. Brennan, a onetime C.I.A. station chief in neighboring Saudi Arabia, is widely regarded as one of the administration’s most knowledgeable officials about the country.

I’m sure we’ll see more of the standard talking heads surface and repeat the last thing they heard on Yemen. For my money, I’ll be waiting to read more from Stacey and from Gregory Johnsen and Brian O’Neill over at Waq Al-Waq. Stacey is a gifted scholar and Johnsen and O’Neill have been blogging on Yemen for the past couple of years and know the country and region well.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.