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Don't lose perspective on Yemen

The failed underpants bomber's alleged (and in my view probable) ties to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have led to an outburst of calls to "do something" about Yemen. President Obama says it is a high priority to partner with the Yemeni government. British PM Gordon Brown calls for a global Yemen summit. Joe Lieberman warns that Yemen will be the next war. In fact, this risks becoming a classic case of massive overreaction playing right into the hands of a terrorist group. The Obama administration, which actually has been working on the Yemen issue all year, now risks falling right back into the classic catalog of Bush-era conceptual and practical mistakes as it scrambles for a response. To get Yemen right will require getting the complicated terrain of Yemeni and Gulf politics right -- not just looking for some kind of military intervention or an influx of foreign aid in order to be seen to have "done something", and not reducing it to an al-Qaeda or COIN problem.

Direct American military intervention in Yemen is so obviously ludicrous that it shouldn't even need to be said. Even the hyper-interventionist conservatives at the Washington Post op-ed page allow that "U.S. ground troops are not needed, for now." They never should be. The U.S. is already struggling to fully resource and equip a mission in Afghanistan which has been defined -- rightly or wrongly -- as vital to American security and interests. The U.S. simply does not have the resources to embark on a military mission in Yemen. If you think Afghanistan is a sinkhole, you will love Yemen. The yawning gap between the extent of U.S. interests and the resources necessary to make a difference is even greater in Yemen than in Afghanistan. And the optics of yet another American military intervention in the Arab world -- under Obama, no less -- would be devastating to the wider Obama outreach strategy. (On the positive side, at least committing scarce U.S. troops to Yemen would make a military strike against Iran that much less likely.)

But the intellectual framework for such a commitment to Yemen is already there. The great principle of the new American global COIN thinking has been that ungoverned spaces and failed states offer safe haven for terrorists, and must be brought to heel through the spread of legitimate government supported by population-centric counter-insurgency military intervention. Applied crudely to Yemen, this suggests encouraging the Yemeni government to spread its writ by force through the ungoverned spaces of the vast country. This would be a disaster -- provoking many more rebellions of the Houthi variety and radically destabilizing an already disastrous situation. Applied more thoughtfully, it leads to the kind of whole-of-government engagement recommended by Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine in their recent CNAS brief.

But it is important to think carefully about the nature of the U.S. interests there, the kinds of resources which would be required to seriously affect the dynamics which matter to the U.S., and how actions in Yemen would fit into wider strategic concerns. I've always thought that the global COIN conception is a recipe for overstretch and exhaustion, as the frontier endlessly recedes and American resources are squandered in a futile attempt to bring order to the unorderly parts of the world. To say that Yemen's state failures produces conditions which allow some dangerous things to develop does not necessarily mean that massive action is required -- the world is full of suboptimal outcomes beyond our means to repair. Decisions should not be made to escalate or initiate commitments to Yemen in a politically-charged, reactive way. And what ever is done had better take seriously the key political issues in the Gulf and Yemen -- where AQAP is only one small part of an extremely complex environment.

The rush to partner with the Yemeni government to "tackle extremism", as Gordon Brown says, illustrates the need to think carefully about the political dimension. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is to a great extent the problem, not the solution. Ever since Saleh recanted on his vow to not seek re-election and cheated his way to victory over Faisal bin Shamlan (who symbolically died this week), Yemen's political system has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Corruption, always bad, has skyrocketed. So have human rights abuses and political repression, including a wide range of attacks on media freedoms. Heavy-handed security services have a lot to do with the outbreak and perpetuation of the Houthi rebellion; as Joost Hilterman points out, "the Houthi leadership has portrayed its position as purely defensive against acts of state oppression and attacks by the Yemeni army." In short, partnering with the Yemeni government to provide honest, legitimate government may seem like a good response, but it is not likely to succeed. If you like working with Hamid Karzai, you're going to love Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Saleh government is more preoccupied with the Houthi rebellion, raging since 2004, than with AQAP even if we care more about the latter. The Yemeni government is also worried about the southern insurrection, and about keeping Saleh in power at any cost. Combating "extremism" is a vague formulation which misses the complexities of these multiple insurgencies and political challenges. The Yemeni government will no doubt be happy to take American and international money and support to strike against its enemies, but don't expect that it will do anything approaching what we want them to do.

Many smart people have proposed that the U.S. rely on the Saudis to play a pacifying, stabilizing role. This would be a mistake. The Saudis have a long history of meddling in Yemeni affairs. It never goes well. Yemenis deeply mistrust their larger and wealthier neighbor. The recent Saudi military incursion against the Houthis has not exactly pleased Arab or Yemeni public opinion -- and has been a major story in the Arab press for months now, even if largely ignored in the U.S. The Saudis have also unleashed a massive propaganda campaign in support of their intervention which ties the Houthis to Iran as part of a wider regional agenda -- a dangeorus reinvigoration of the Sunni-Shia tensions which reverberated through the region in the mid-2000s. What's more, the Saudis hardly need to be convinced that defeating AQAP is in their interest -- the main reason that APAQ is in Yemen now is that the Saudis ruthlessly destroyed the al-Qaeda organization inside Saudi Arabia after 2003, and many of its members fled to Yemen to regroup. Inviting more Saudi interventions into Yemen is a recipe for disaster.

Other very smart people suggest -- correctly -- that military solutions aren't going to do it, and that the better response would be more development assistance. Development assistance is nice, and I'm generally for this kind of whole-of-government assistance and engagement, but Yemen is one of the most underdeveloped places on earth, with a vast expanse and an inhospitable terrain and extremely limited state penetration. It is also mind-bogglingly corrupt. Development aid sent to the Yemeni government will likely simply be funneled in to the same kinds of projects that are currently well-funded (many of them on the Riviera), or else wasted like water in the ocean.

So what should the U.S. do? Pretty much what it's been doing in the Obama administration, which has in fact been thinking seriously about Yemen all year and which has quietly been working there in some constructive and some unconstructive ways. It's never as satisfying as a morally pure call to battle, but the administration shouldn't over-react or under-react. Be patient, build intelligence and CT assets, strike against clearly AQ targets when available but only where the civilian costs will be minimal and the rewards high, search out local partners... the usual. But the administration shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking it must "do something" to fend off political harping from the right and end up over-committing... or taking steps which ultimately make the situation worse.

KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images

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