Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saleh government

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.

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.

Read Less

Fresh Outreach

Iran this week has thrown a one-two diplomatic punch in the matter of Yemen’s insurgency problem. It remains to be seen if the Islamic revolutionary state is punching above its weight; that may depend on what, if anything, the U.S. does. But Arabs in the region have taken Iran’s initiative badly, seeing it as the continuation of a trend toward Iranian meddling in Arab nations’ affairs.

On November 5, Saudi Arabia launched a counteroffensive against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Shias with Iranian backing who have violated the Saudi border in the course of their fight against the central government in Sana’a. A Saudi officer was reportedly killed by the Houthis last week, and the Saudis are losing confidence in the ability of the Saleh government to quell the insurgency. On November 10, Iran — the Houthis’ supplier — warned “Yemen’s neighbors” against meddling in Yemeni affairs. Since “Yemen’s neighbors” amount to Saudi Arabia and Oman, this warning was quite pointed.

Today Al Jazeera reports that Iran has offered to “aid Yemeni security,” proclaiming Tehran ready to help restore peace to the insurgency-torn nation. Al Jazeera’s hostile view of this disingenuous initiative is a reliable reflection of sentiment in Arab capitals. The proposal is also a direct challenge to America’s network of partnerships in the region. Iran advancing itself as a moderator of an Arab nation’s internal affairs is, in fact, a power play, one that would not be mounted in an environment of American alertness and determination.

Iran has conducted its foreign policy for years through the sponsorship of terrorism against Israel and Lebanon. It’s through gaining an insidious foothold in other nations, through coming in the back door, that Iran has sought regional influence. Now the mullahs propose to be admitted through the front door in Yemen, and have their support to the Houthi guerrillas validated by a recognized diplomatic process.

With Iran already an established presence in Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, will the Obama administration discourage this fresh initiative with any level of firmness? Or will it leave the Saudis and Yemenis to make their own arrangements for resistance to Iran’s outreach? See what you think (from the Huffington Post piece linked above):

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters [on November 5] he had no information about whether the conflict had spread across the border but expressed Washington’s concern over the situation.

“It’s our view that there can be no long-term military solution to the conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels,” Kelly said. “We call on all parties to the conflict to make every effort to protect civilian populations and limit damage to civilian infrastructure.”

That doesn’t sound to me like a posture Iran would have to worry about colliding with. It probably didn’t sound like one to Iran either.

Iran this week has thrown a one-two diplomatic punch in the matter of Yemen’s insurgency problem. It remains to be seen if the Islamic revolutionary state is punching above its weight; that may depend on what, if anything, the U.S. does. But Arabs in the region have taken Iran’s initiative badly, seeing it as the continuation of a trend toward Iranian meddling in Arab nations’ affairs.

On November 5, Saudi Arabia launched a counteroffensive against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Shias with Iranian backing who have violated the Saudi border in the course of their fight against the central government in Sana’a. A Saudi officer was reportedly killed by the Houthis last week, and the Saudis are losing confidence in the ability of the Saleh government to quell the insurgency. On November 10, Iran — the Houthis’ supplier — warned “Yemen’s neighbors” against meddling in Yemeni affairs. Since “Yemen’s neighbors” amount to Saudi Arabia and Oman, this warning was quite pointed.

Today Al Jazeera reports that Iran has offered to “aid Yemeni security,” proclaiming Tehran ready to help restore peace to the insurgency-torn nation. Al Jazeera’s hostile view of this disingenuous initiative is a reliable reflection of sentiment in Arab capitals. The proposal is also a direct challenge to America’s network of partnerships in the region. Iran advancing itself as a moderator of an Arab nation’s internal affairs is, in fact, a power play, one that would not be mounted in an environment of American alertness and determination.

Iran has conducted its foreign policy for years through the sponsorship of terrorism against Israel and Lebanon. It’s through gaining an insidious foothold in other nations, through coming in the back door, that Iran has sought regional influence. Now the mullahs propose to be admitted through the front door in Yemen, and have their support to the Houthi guerrillas validated by a recognized diplomatic process.

With Iran already an established presence in Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, will the Obama administration discourage this fresh initiative with any level of firmness? Or will it leave the Saudis and Yemenis to make their own arrangements for resistance to Iran’s outreach? See what you think (from the Huffington Post piece linked above):

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters [on November 5] he had no information about whether the conflict had spread across the border but expressed Washington’s concern over the situation.

“It’s our view that there can be no long-term military solution to the conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels,” Kelly said. “We call on all parties to the conflict to make every effort to protect civilian populations and limit damage to civilian infrastructure.”

That doesn’t sound to me like a posture Iran would have to worry about colliding with. It probably didn’t sound like one to Iran either.

Read Less




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