Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Multilateralism in Yemen

There have been a lot of articles written by experts on Yemen or counter-terrorism articulating what they believe a smart US policy would be. Consider this recent Op-Ed in the WSJ arguing that President Obama should form a Joint Task Force on Yemen to "develop and implement a strategy to improve the effectiveness of the Yemeni government and security forces, re-establish civil order, and eliminate the al Qaeda safe haven." I had been hopeful when I started reading the article, because the authors began by calling for an alternative "smart power" approach to the "limited counterterrorist approaches" that had been adopted so far. When I called for the same that was not exactly what I had in mind...

Then there was this article in Newsweek, which basically makes no argument whatsoever, other than that President Saleh is an "SOB." The WSJ piece said the same in gentler terms (it called him an "unpalatable partner") and in general this sentiment has been expressed in many other articles on Yemen. We want to help these people but what are we supposed to do when their leader is a corrupt maniac who refuses our money??

This has been the principal dilemma for the experts offering policy advice. How do you help a country that scorns your offers? Clearly Saleh is no saint...but if he is a maniac, then he is probably only a megalomaniac who wants to hold onto power for as long as possible. And he has some pretty good reasons for not wanting to accept too much US aid. The Newsweek article criticizes him for often snapping at Americans that "we are not your employees." The last thing he wants is for his country to see him as an American lapdog.

So what can we do? The suggestions that these pieces put forward are pretty laughable -- they are vague, unlikely to have any real impact, or outright counterproductive. For example, both suggest that Saleh will only help the US fight Al Qaeda if the US recognizes his number one security priority and wades in to help him fight the Houthis. I can't think of a better idea than to have the US fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

The solutions proposed will not do, not only because they are narrowly focused on security rather than development, not only because they are unlikely to be acceptable to Yemenis or to achieve their desired ends, and not only because the US does not have the financial means to properly execute them. Their fundamental flaw is that they involve two players only: the United States and Yemen. The fact is that if the US wants to make sure that Yemen doesn't fail, then it needs to butt out.

American should rely on its allies to execute the proper array of security and development strategies in Yemen. The problem is that American policymakers hate ceding control; there is a prevailing attitude in Washington that no one can do the job better than the United States. This is pointedly wrong, especially when it comes to Yemen.

There are many countries that could potentially do a better job training Yemeni security forces, undertaking joint military missions, establishing aid programs, executing development projects, and helping to stabilize the country. This is not just because of the Yemeni stigma against US aid dollars. In fact, there are many countries and agencies out there that have a deeper understanding of the problems Yemen faces and are better equipped to tackle them. The WSJ article mentions that the US embassy in Sana'a is understaffed and under-resourced. I would also add that it is under-educated (at least when it comes to Yemen's problems).

Although European countries can also be mistruted, some states have much better and more longstanding relationships with Yemen. Germany is a good example, with a large Yemeni expat community and a fairly sizable diplomatic and development presence in the country. Then there are Middle Eastern neighbors like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Now that Saudi has come to Sana'a's rescue against the Houthi's, Saleh would likely welcome additional extensions of help from a neighbor that has always been something of a rival. Sana'a also has longstanding ties with Egypt, ever since Nasser helped the North win the civil war, and Egyptian aid might be welcomed. Finally, there are innumerable international aid organizations that are experienced in providing the kind of development insistence that Yemen needs.

America should back off. It should delegate some of its security activities to allies like Europe and Saudi Arabia. It should divert more funds (and a higher percentage of funds) to economic and social development, but should do so indirectly, through other countries' aid programs and through international organizations. It should recognize and accept that, for many reasons, it can only do so much by itself in Yemen.

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