Opportunity in Yemen
Five years from now, we’ll look back at the events in Yemen today, and the American response to them, as either a turning point away from the rudderlessness of the past decade or as a lost opportunity to right the ship. Yemen is a failed state of the similar sort that incubated the modern age of terrorism in other impoverished backwaters like Sudan and Afghanistan. By not repeating the mistakes of the past, the US can improve its standing in the region and improve its security both in Yemen and throughout the Middle East.
The main concern of the US in Yemen has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen was the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, the launching point of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the hideaway of master Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al Awlaki, the training center for would be “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the origin the 2011 “cargo planes” bomb plot – just to hit the high points.
The US response has been to combat the symptoms without finding a cure for the disease. Drone strikes have hindered the operations of AQAP, but have never and will never eradicate the presence the violent radicals that thrive in the absence of a viable Yemeni state. The most that can be said of earlier Yemeni leaders, first under President Saleh, a long term autocrat pushed aside by the ripples of the Arab Spring, and his successor Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is that they tolerated US airstrikes (while doing more to weaken than to strengthen the country itself).
So, now the country has fallen into a multi-sided civil war between the three now-familiar factions that are battling it across the region: namely, Shi’ites (Zaidi Arabs commonly labeled Houthis today), radical Sunnis (Al Qaeda and their like-minded quasi-rival ISIS), and the less-radical Sunni “moderates” (with big, heavy quotation marks). These are the same three groups, writ large, fighting in Syria and Iraq. Areas such as Afghanistan, Libya, the Palestinian Territories, and Pakistan face similar violent divides, albeit with less of a Shi’ite role.
Meanwhile, a nexus of like-minded “moderate” states included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and most of the Gulf States are assuming, due to a combination of a heavy dose of identity-based affinity (vis-à-vis Shi’ites) and perceived strategic and internal interests (vis-à-vis both groups), a patron role in supporting various groups around the region seeking to battle the Shi’ite and radical Sunni tide. For similar reasons, Iran has continued to play a similar role in empowering and supplying Shi’ite militants, as it has since 1979.
When Houthi Shi’ites seized the capital of Yemen late last year, the Saudis sprung into action as they did in 2011 when the Shi’ite majority there threatened to topple the Sunni monarchy in nearby Bahrain in 2011. Unlike in Bahrain, a country of barely a million people versus Yemen’s almost 25 million, the Saudis have only responded with airstrikes rather than sending in the troops. Also unlike Bahrain, where the US just kind of looked the other way, the US has been supporting efforts in Yemen with logistical support, intelligence, and, this week, a show of naval force to dissuade Iranian efforts to supply the Houthis.
The big question is why the United States is supporting efforts in a multi-sided civil war in an unbelievably culturally and politically complex environment (I won’t even get into Yemeni tribalism or the North-South divide) in support of a Saudi government with questionable motives, questionable competence, and a track record of supporting anti-Western groups, all the while destroying what remains of political order in Yemen and thus empowering the one group we care about – the forces of Al Qaeda and ISIS?
The short answer (and I can’t say I know what happened behind closed doors at the White House, Foggy Bottom, or the Pentagon) is probably that we were largely drawn in on short notice out of a desire to show diplomatic support to the Saudis, a sincere concern that without US intelligence more collateral damage would occur, and a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that somehow we’d be containing Iranian influence and helping to restore order.
Unfortunately, this type of crisis-type reactivity to events, while sometimes unavoidable, seems to be an all-to-frequent hallmark of President Obama and his team’s foreign policy. Yemen is not a lost cause, however, and it is time to grab the reigns and try to influence the future course of events in the Middle East in a more favorable direction.
Yemen, in tandem with our nuclear negotiations, has the potential of opening the door to a new era of greater cooperation with Iran, and we should seize it. The only way to address all the myriad of conflicts throughout the region at once is to find a way to build trust and a working relationship between ourselves, the Iranians, and Sunni governments, especially the Saudis. In Yemen, the Saudis, the Houthis, and the Iranians have all called for serious negotiations. In Yemen, there exists a conflict that nobody seems to want to fight except the Al Qaeda types, and this presents an opportunity.
The United States must launch a diplomatic initiative akin to the efforts its put in the past in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue – with equivalent promises of foreign aid in the case of a settlement to match (such aid, no matter how large, would represent a small drop of what we’ve committed money-wise to the War on Terror). Unlike the case in Syria, where the continued presence of a bloodstained autocrat and the fear of genocidal reprisals make peace a distant prospect, power-sharing in Yemen is doable.
A future in which an effort is truly made to rebuild the Yemeni state, and a Middle East in which the US and Iran transcend the chest-thumping antagonisms of their nationalist contingents and achieve a modicum of cooperation on their many common interests throughout the region is a future that is much more promising than the current chaos we’ve been sucked into and from which we seemingly have no grand strategy for extracting ourselves.