A group of 27 foreign policy, security, and Middle East experts sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on this week criticizing the administration's counterterrorism-focused approach to Yemen and urging the White House to heed policy recommendations geared toward "achieving a successful democratic transition" in the war-torn Gulf country, which experienced a popular uprising last year that ousted longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Although the United States has "drastically increased the number of drone strikes" against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the letter states, this strategy "jeopardizes our long-term national security goals." A comprehensive focus on Yemen's economic and political problems, it continues, "will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, our national security interests, rather than ... direct military involvement."
The letter, spearheaded by the Yemen Policy Initiative, a dialogue organized by the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), outlines several diplomatic, political, economic, humanitarian, and security policy recommendations that include increasing assistance to democracy-building institutions, working with the international community to immediately address Yemen's "food security needs," sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and rethinking the strategy of drone strikes, which the signatories argue "could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups."
"The real essence [of the letter] was that we have a new government in Yemen, and what we need to do is recalibrate or rebalance the relationship to make it clear to both the Yemenis and to the American people that our interests and the focus of our efforts there are not solely AQAP," former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told The Cable. "Al Qaeda is a short-term, immediate issue ... we need to took to the medium-term and long-term."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED, argues that while U.S. policy in Yemen is "shortsighted" and "too narrow," AQAP is still a real threat.
"By no means are we downplaying counterterrorism issues," he said in a short interview with The Cable.
U.S. diplomats were actively involved in negotiating the power transfer agreement that resulted in Saleh's official ouster in November 2011, and President Obama signed an executive order in May green-lighting sanctions against parties that try to disrupt the transition. In April, the White House authorized a campaign of stepped-up drone strikes against terrorists in Yemen. The Yemeni military, under new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, has recently concentrated on routing AQAP militants from their strongholds in southern Yemen and claims to be making progress.
There are also indications that the Obama administration is taking a broader approach to its Yemen policy. Earlier this month, a delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives visited Sanaa, where congressmen met with government officials as well as businesspeople, NGO representatives, and civil--society leaders. Last week, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) director Rajiv Shah also traveled to Sanaa and announced that the agency would give an additional $52 million to Yemen in 2012.
It's a start, the letters' signatories say, but they'd like to see more.
"The U.S. does have a broad policy of engaging both in security cooperation and development assistance, but unfortunately most Yemenis don't perceive U.S. engagement to be that way," Danya Greenfield, deputy director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, told The Cable. "We need to clearly articulate that the U.S. is really invested in their long-term development ... to ensure that there is ongoing sustainable security both for Yemen and the U.S."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.