Don't Let Captain Underpants Bring Back the GWOT

I was out of commission most of last week, and so unable to comment as the Obama administration and the American public's response to the failed airplane bomber unfolded (except on the BBC, where to my everlasting delight the host let me say "Captain Underpants" to a global audience; 4-8 year old boys everywhere rejoiced). But is too much to ask that the national discourse over the failed bomber be more mature and analytical than "Captain Underpants vs Professor Poopypants"? The way the media and the American political system has responded, I'm not so sure. I'm fairly confident that the Obama administration, despite some mistakes along the way, will maintain its effective approach to  marginalizing al Qaeda and combatting the still dangerous but tiny jihadist core.  But the last few weeks show that -- aside from some very good op-eds calling for calm and warning against overreaction -- bad old habits of political discourse die hard, and a lot of people don't want them to die at all.

The attempted bombing was a disturbing, but fairly unexceptional incident. Al Qaeda affiliated individuals and groups have tried repeatedly over the last 8 years to find ways to strike against the U.S. and Western targets. Sometimes those plots have been rolled up early, sometimes they have gotten closer to succeedings, sometimes they have tragically succeeded (yes, they do count even if they are not on American soil). It is just wrong to suggest that Obama has not taken al Qaeda seriously just because he doesn't use the magic words so beloved of his critics. His administration has continued or expanded a wide range of effective measures to degrade and dismantle its networks across the region and world. Its escalation in Afghanistan was, for better or for worse, largely justified in terms of degrading and destroying al Qaeda's South Asian base. There do seem to have been some issues with the coordination of information sharing and all that, but the hard reality is that there is no such thing as perfect security or a perfect system, and these guys are professionals doing their best (including Michael Leiter, director of the NCTC, for whose head a lot of people were baying; it is to Obama's credit that he brushed them aside and kept experienced and effective leaders in place).  

Even had the attempt succeeded, al Qaeda's basic situation would have been largely the same as it was before: a still dangerous, mobilized but small jihadist core which can do great damage in specific places but has lost its ability to reach out to a wider Arab or Muslim audience. The strategic imperative would have remained the same:  going after this tiny but dangerous AQ networks in all possible ways, while ensuring that it does not regain any ability to break out into the wider Arab or Muslim population. Obama and his team understand this very well, and remain determined to deny al Qaeda the strategic victory of refueling the "clash of civilizations" narrative of a West against Islam. As the President said today, “how we project ourselves to the world, the message we send to Muslim communities around the world, the overwhelming majority of which reject al Qaeda but where a handful of individuals may be moved by a jihadist ideology, what counter-messaging we have to them -- all those things — continue to be extraordinarily important.” That's just right. 

But the American media and political system don't seem to be wired for such a temperate, rational response. The exultant release of the pent up desire of much of the media for Bush-era posturing has been about as pretty as the Packers defense yesterday. (Sorry.) It was the media -- egged on by right wing critics eager to score political points, but manifestly enthusiastic all on its own -- which took a failed plot and blew it up into a major national crisis. The American media and political frenzy had a real political impact where it matters most -- in the Arab and Muslim audiences whose views of al Qaeda and America are at stake. The initial Arab response to the attempt was a collective shrug, indifference at yet another failed plot by a marginalized actor. Now, the Arab public seems increasingly fascinated by the story, with more articles and commentary about a resurgent al Qaeda than in the immediate aftermath, and Arab commentators seem increasingly angered  by the Obama administration's reactions. Between them, the American media and political gamesmanship transformed yet another al Qaeda failure into what it can now claim as a success.  They must be very proud.

Faced with this political frenzy (over the holidays, no less), the Obama administration did seem to be falling back into those old habits of the GWOT, likely against their better foreign policy instincts. This led to some off-key messaging from an strategic communications perspective. Obama's stern declarations that we are at war with al-Qaeda tended to drown out his simultaneous insistence that it would not force the United States to compromise its values. Rightly or wrongly, to Arab and Muslim ears this sounded much like the old Bush talk, and the announcement of extra screening for people coming from primarily Muslim countries sounded much like the old Bush deeds. Arab commentators noticed and  complained bitterly. Such talk reinforces the increasingly dangerous narrative in the Arab media that Obama is really no different from Bush,  and that whatever his intentions he can't deliver real change.

It's not too late to walk this particular frenzy back. The worst thing which Obama could do now is to return to the old GWOT frame to placate domestic critics while losing sight of the strategic urgency of reshaping American relations with the Muslim world. I don't think he will. I have more confidence than do some of my colleagues on this score, I think. I think that Obama's team really does understand both the security demands of combatting an adaptive and resilient but small jihadist core and the strategic demands of marginalizing al Qaeda and reshaping America's relations with the Muslim world. I hope they get back to it. 

Marc Lynch

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.