Yemen: A U.S. Strategic Partner?

The recent Al Qaeda attacks in Yemen are very worrying.  Even more worrying are reports that the attacks were allowed or even enabled by elements of the military still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Despite the violence, we should not lose sight of the fact that Yemen passed a very significant hurdle on February 21, 2012.  Notwithstanding some calls for boycotts and threats of violence in the south and far north, the Yemenis responded positively and came out in large numbers to confirm Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi as the country’s new President.  The election was arguably as much a vote against Saleh as it was a confirmation of Hadi.  But while we might more accurately describe the February 21 “election” as a referendum or a national vote of confidence, it is by no means a magic wand to secure Yemen’s future.  There are no overnight solutions to the country’s long-term structural problems.  Many of the key players from the old regime are still influencing politics while ordinary Yemenis still face the same harsh economic, social and political realities they endured under Saleh.  Winston Churchill once said; “Now this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” For Yemen, therefore, the real work begins now with a two-year transitional period leading up to free and fair democratic elections in 2014 on the basis of constitutional reforms.  Now is the time for the international community to act boldly, consistently and generously in support of Yemen’s transition for a sustained period.  The Obama administration’s new defense plan issued on January 5, 2012 offers a hidden opportunity for a U.S.-Yemen strategic partnership that is too good to miss both for Yemen during this critical phase in its modern history and for the U.S. as it seeks to flex influence further eastwards.

The new defense plan arguably transitions the U.S. from a strategy of engagement to a strategy of deterrence to cope with upstream threats and opportunities.  The strategy decreases budget, troops, fighter planes, navy ships and military bases to sustain the force while it increases drones, cyber operations, and special forces for deterrence purposes.  The increases and decreases were vividly and schematically articulated by The Washington Post on January 27, 2012.  Also noted therein is a desire to lean less on the Middle East and to focus more eastward, where disciples of Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon see threats and opportunities with a rising India and China within the Indian Ocean region as both countries wrestle for oil and gas resources to feed growing and energy-reliant populations.  The lion share of these energy resources will be transported across the largely ungoverned Indian Ocean region.  Recent basing agreements with Australia demonstrate that the U.S. shift of emphasis has already begun.

As we start to look eastward to find new friends, let us not forget Yemen. Over the last decade the U.S. has viewed Yemen almost exclusively through a counterterrorism lens.  This has proven short-sighted and often counter-productive.  Some make a compelling case that Ali Abdullah Saleh kept the terrorism threat alive to secure both U.S. funding and ultimately his regime, which was dubbed by Yemen expert Robert Burrowes as nothing short of a “kleptocracy.”  In recent history our bilateral relationship with Yemen has been somewhat on and off, as has been the U.S. funding tap.  As Saleh leaves power, the new Yemen provides a compelling future strategic partner opportunity for the U.S.  Some would argue that pressing economic concerns, outstanding issues of military and security reform, and the multitude of other problems facing Yemen mean that the U.S. and the international community will be hard pressed to prevent Yemen from becoming a failed state.  We disagree.  A win-win is possible with some forward strategic thinking focused on the needs of Yemen coupled with the U.S. desire for greater influence in the Indian Ocean region.

A careful look at the map reveals that Yemen is the hinge between East and West.  The Bab-el-Mandeb – which links the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden – highlights Yemen’s vital geostrategic location.  Most will be familiar with the strategic and economic importance of the area, particularly the Canal, which remains at the heart of world trade and commerce.  The Bab-el-Mandeb’s close proximity to the Port of Aden suggests that developing the port – as has been a regular observation by former US Ambassador to Yemen,Barbara Bodine – makes sense.  Although the port has been largely undeveloped since the British left Aden in 1967, the logic of investment is obvious.  Invest in Aden’s port and Yemen’s Coastguard and you can secure the southern end of the Suez Canal. 

Economic reform and military restructuring are the top priorities for Yemen moving forward.  Military reform will require a lot of care, expertise and patience, but a restructured, well-led and well-equipped Yemeni Coastguard active in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden could be leveraged in support of Combined Task Force 150 and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces to counter piracy and also quell the aspirations of both Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Additionally, the U.S. would have a trusted ally acting across the CENTCOM – AFRICOM boundary. 

The U.S. currently has a good relationship with Yemen that could be further enhanced with a program of support – a mini-Marshall Plan – to help bring the country up to the standard of neighbors like Oman.  Maybe the U.S. could even help Yemen gain a future seat at the GCC.  Conservative estimates about the work needed to fix Yemen are not inconsequential and there is much a regenerated Yemen can do to help itself.  Estimates of costs needed to fix Yemen, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the investment provided to previous interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, or indeed – years gone by – in Vietnam.  And crucially, in this case, we will not have to fight a war as well.   Yemenis are concerned enough about U.S. drone strikes and do not want to see U.S. boots on the ground

Acting in support of deterrence, we can seek new opportunities and do much to secure the western edge of the Indian Ocean rim and counter upstream threats through a new U.S.-Yemen strategic partnership.  Yemen could certainly do with the help we would offer as part of that relationship.  Relatively small injections of funding will make a world of difference to a country where 50% of the population currently lives on less than 2 dollars a day.  Before Congress balks at the idea of a Yemen mini-Marshall Plan, however, they should understand that the outcome will far outweigh the cost.  Such a plan would help to secure global commercial and economic interests and help neutralize a branch of Al Qaeda that actively seeks to strike the U.S.  Acting with and through a reinvigorated ally rather than as the lone global policeman, the partnership would come at a relatively low cost to the U.S.  And this time, for a change, the U.S. can foster a relationship with a keen partner using economics, not the military, at the head of the spear.  So in moving forward we need to negotiate with Yemen through the Department of State’s US Agency for International Development (USAID) rather than the Department of Defense, which in and of itself will go some way to help us more effectively convey the message of our strategic interests abroad.  It is certainly too good an opportunity to miss.  A strategic partnership makes sense and is a win-win in political, military and economic terms for both sides.

In closing we return to Churchill, who once said; “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”  The U.S. must change – therefore –and start to view Yemen outside the counterterrorism box.  A real opportunity exists for both sides that is certainly worth more than cursory academic consideration.

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The extent to which Yemen really is "geostrategically key terrain" is I think well overstated here. What will we really lose, and what threat will we really face, when the artificial construct we call "Yemen" collapses into a mass of regional, ethnic, and sectarian conflict? Certainly there's a possibility of an AQ refuge being established or Somali-style piracy becoming entrenched, but I don't see why we need to "fix" Yemen to manage those eventualities... a good thing, since we can't "fix" Yemen in any event.

What's missing from the article is any suggestion of how exactly a "mini Marshall plan" - code for "send money" - is supposed to "fix" Yemen. Given the history of previous efforts to "fix" problems by throwing money at them, what reason have we to think money is going to transform Yemen into a functional "strategic partner"?

There are certain countries in the world which occupy geo-strategically key terrain. None more so than the United States herself. A fact we seem to forget as we agonize over geo-strategically significant locations elsewhere where we also perceive interests to reside.

Yemen has not moved. Ever since the digging of the Suez Canal it has been geo-strategically important. It is our appreciation of that fact that led us down the slippery slope to our long-standing and increasingly dysfunctional relationship with President Saleh and his regime. And it is that relationship that led to the growth of the impunity which Saleh acted in regards to his own populace. He "knew" his relationship with the US was far more important to his political survival than his relationship with his own populace. Then the rules changed, and what he, and other leaders like him once "knew" with great certainty began to grow increasingly uncertain. Suddenly the populaces of such places mattered as well. Not just the segments of the populace that form the base of support for such governments we align with, but increasingly the many diverse populaces outside those bases of support.

The real question for nations such as the United States is: "How do we most effectively define and manage our vital interests as they manifest overseas in those places that are geo-strategically important vs. those places that are not, and how do we define and deal with threats to those interests."

Historically we tied ourselves to specific leaders or governments, and considered threats to those governments or leaders to be threats to our interests. That thinking is obsolete. Our interests manifest in the location of the land, in the resources of the land. Our interests and how we pursue them is interwoven into the fabric of the many populaces who either win or lose in business of how those interests are pursued. These things endure. Governments and leaders come and go. We need to shift our focus to what endures, and stop trying to make leaders and governments more enduring than their own populaces want them to be.

We need a new approach to foreign policy in general. Yes, Yemen is a good place to begin exploring what such new approaches might look like. If we simply throw our promise of support onto another government we simply begin once again down the same path we gone down so many other places. If we simply build the security force capacity necessary to protect such governments from their own populaces, we go down that same old path. If we attempt to buy the good will of the populace with development projects that go far more to making us feel better about ourselves than actually helping to advance the situations of those segments of the populace outside the base of the government we have adopted, we begin down that same old path. We need approaches that are much more agnostic as to who is in power or how they govern so long as they govern in a matter acceptable to their own populace. We need approaches that recognize that geo-strategically key terrain is occupied by equally geo-strategically key populaces. It is how satisfied those populaces are with their government, not how satisfied the US is with their government, which secures our interests.

We need to evolve. Yemen is indeed a good place to begin that evolution. I suspect we will be too obsessed by the nodes of AQ's UW network that operate there; that we will continue to conflate Saudi and Yemeni insurgents who accept support from AQ as somehow being threats to us that we must wage CT against; that we will continue to overly focus on how we sustain our relationship with some particular government, and how we can help protect that relationship investment by building capacity to protect that government from its own populace. I suspect we will miss this opportunity.

After all the years and lives and billions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're still talking seriously about trying to "fix" other countries... maybe I'm dense, but I do not get it. Has anyone, anywhere, ever "fixed" another country? In what sense is this a reasonable objective?