Yemen has been an “always almost failing state” for as long as Ambassador Barbara K. Bodine can remember, she affirmed in her February 3 Georgetown University luncheon lecture, “Yemen: If This is a Policy Success, What Does Failure Look Like?” The truth of Bodine’s sobering presentation to a fifty-person conference room packed to standing-room-only was confirmed when, eight days later, America’s embassy in the capital Sanaa fell to Houthi rebels and U.S. Marines were forced to destroy their weapons before fleeing the country to prevent them from falling into rebel hands. The humiliating failure of American policy demonstrated that, President Barack Obama’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, Yemen will not be a policy success anytime soon.
Bodine, a career Foreign Service officer with extensive experience in the Middle East, directs Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She spoke at the invitation of Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). Associate director of ACMCU and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Professor of Islamic Civilization Jonathan Brown moderated and professor emeritus John Voll attended.
According to Bodine, Obama left professionals with experience in Yemen “all baffled” when he “touted Yemen as a success” of anti-terrorism policy in a September address. “Whatever Yemen is, it is not yet a success,” she stated, describing the “resource deprived” country whose Sunni majority was overtaken by an insurgency of Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran earlier this year. Bodine warned that “solutions based on our timelines” do not work for a country like Yemen, which “never really gets fully stable, but . . . doesn’t quite go off the cliff, either.” Yemenis “do conflict resolution so well because they do conflict prevention so poorly,” she added.
Bodine criticized the Obama administration’s emphasis on using drones to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is, “in many ways . . . the smallest problem in Yemen” given its instability. In her words, “drones have gone from being a tool to a strategy,” but they “tend . . . to piss people off” and do “not make friends” among local Yemenis when unaccompanied by explanation. She also criticized the “efficacy” of drones given that AQAP has grown from hundreds of followers in 2009 to thousands who now control Yemeni territory. Moreover, the Yemeni military, “never . . . a strong institution,” is often bested by Yemeni tribes and desperately needs aid.
Bodine lamented that drone strikes “have corroded an already fairly fragile state” and caused Yemenis to view Americans as merely “fighting a proxy war” while “not . . . engaged in governance” that benefits the populace. Americans “need to be seen as visible” in their ongoing aid to Yemen and to change their rhetoric from “always talking about al-Qaeda,” which causes Yemenis to “think that all we are is drones.” Not countering Yemeni “drivers of instability” entails that problems other than AQAP will plague the strategically placed country. A failed Yemeni state, for example, with twenty-five million refugees would mean that “Saudi Arabia has a problem.”
Yemen has “played host to other people’s proxy battles over the millennia,” Bodine noted, such as that between the Saudi Royal Family and Egypt’s former dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser during the Cold War. Iranians “muck around” in Yemen, supporting the Houthis as a means of countering the Saudis, who, in turn, “muck around” in Syria by providing aid to the rebels fighting that country’s dictator, Bashar Assad, an Iranian ally. However, she noted, Saudi Arabia’s “existential worry” in Yemen is not the Houthis, but AQAP. “If you are overly confused, you are doing well,” she joked, in reference to Yemen’s convoluted political dynamics.
Audience members did not challenge Bodine’s presentation, with one person agreeing with her assessment that “drones are ineffective” and commenting on the “lack of depth in our understanding of foreign policy.” Similarly, Georgetown adjunct professor Joseph Saba, a specialist in fragile state development with World Bank experience in Yemen, concurred that “American interests are deeper and broader” in Yemen than drone policy.
Bodine succeeded in her principal objective of urging a dramatic rethinking of American policy towards Muslim-majority societies. Yemen’s decent into chaos contradicts Obama’s premature proclamation of “success,” while the future remains as murky in Afghanistan as it does with incessant efforts to achieve “land for peace” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The shifting sectarian political sands in the region allow for groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to implement what Bodine termed a “brutal” yet “very clear idea” of “governing philosophy.” Such daunting realities demand policies derived from a clear grasp of the region’s history and current affairs, not vapid pronouncements of victory based on little more than fantasy.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
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