Commentary Magazine


Too Much of a “Light” Thing

The profile of Country A in Yemen associates it with domestic military raids by the corrupt, ineffective central government. Country B’s profile in Yemen involves contracts to build a railroad and new electric power plant and sell the Sanaa government billions in new military equipment. Country C is Yemen’s largest trading partner, representing more than a third of its foreign trade, its biggest source of foreign investment, and the majority of its oil and gas sales.

Country A is, of course, the United States of America. Countries B and C are Russia and China. The year is 2010, and the war on terror is relying as never before on assassination strikes against terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Standoff drone attacks have increased in the AfPak theater – dramatically so this month. For the new push in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), U.S. reliance is on facilitating strikes performed by the national government. America has promised to double security assistance to Yemen, offering $150 million in 2010 for fighting AQAP. Humanitarian assistance from USAID, meanwhile, is projected to increase to $50 million in 2010. The U.S. also proposes to help the Saleh government fight internal corruption and improve its democratic practices.

As a Voice of America reporter points out from on-scene in Sanaa, Yemenis are not taking the increase in outside intervention well. The Saleh government faces a serious challenge in its effort to downplay the dimensions of foreign involvement. The Obama administration’s preference for light-footprint, standoff antiterrorism operations would seem to accord nicely with the Yemeni government’s desires, but there is hardly a one-to-one correspondence in the size of our presence and its effective political profile. AQAP, which claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, already seeks to attack Americans; it will not be appeased by the absence of conventionally organized U.S. ground troops in Yemen. Yemenis themselves are now associating their government’s attacks, in which civilians are being killed, with American backing.

Trying to play this game without “skin” in it is likely to backfire on us and on our partner in Yemen, the Saleh government. In the coming months, that already-weak government will face a cadre of American advisers urging it to do things that make it more and more unpopular. Three other foreign governments – in Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia – will be bringing cash and looking for opportunities that may conflict directly with the course we have chosen, including competition for Saleh’s favor and loyalty. Iran will continue to jockey for a surrogate foothold on the peninsula and will find our commitment there a made-to-order front on which to oppose and confound the U.S.

The latter factor alone ought to prompt formation of the interagency task force proposed on Jan. 14 by Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch. But our administration’s emerging reliance on targeted “leadership” strikes – now to be conducted by proxy in Yemen – is also widening an uncomfortable gap between its actual policy and the ideal of constructive use of all forms of national power. There is a real risk of doing just enough to enrage AQAP and the Yemeni populace but not enough to improve conditions and promote a long-term favorable outcome. Now is the time to mount a more deliberate approach.