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Guest Post: Second Term Politics and Yemen

Editor’s note: The below is a guest post by Waq al-waq co-founder Brian O’Neill.

(I want to thank Greg for inviting me to post, and urge any of you who haven’t to buy- don’t rent, you freeloaders!- his book.   It is truly excellent, and a must read. There isn’t an analyst who I trust more, or whom is a more enjoyable read.  I’d say that even if he didn’t demand it of me.) 

If you are a political junkie, like me, a presidential election tends to overwhelm everything.  Even if you aren’t, the noise from the media is understandably deafening, and the constant barrage of polls, of sound-bites, of scandals, even occasionally of policy analysis suffocates all other news.  Even an enormous hurricane only briefly pushed it from the front page.  Because of all of that, it is easy to think that Everything Changes as soon as results are in.  And while things are different, it is important to remember that nothing really changes.  Yemen, for example, is still a deeply divided, fractious, violent and poverty-drowned country teetering on the brink of natural and manmade disasters- voter turnout in Cuyahoga County doesn’t alter that.  The challenges President Obama faces there, and in the broader Middle East, are no different

That said, while the landscape didn’t change, the President has.  No, this isn’t a call for a Rove-dreamt recount: winning re-election has changed what is politically possible, what is mandated by electoral concerns, and it also recalibrates the positions of players in the Middle East.  It was a mini-scandal when President Obama told Dimitri Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” in a second term, but that is simply a reality which would be uncontroversial were it not for the numbing crucible of our politics. (and it led to Medvedev saying “I will transmit your message to Vladimir,” which is the most terrifyingly awesome Russian thing to say.)  The second term is different.  

So, with that in mind, how will President Obama handle Yemen in this term?  With almost everything here, there is a cynical interpretation and a more generous one, with truth falling somewhere in between.  The biggest potential change is with drone strikes.  It is here that we’ll see if Obama really believes in drone strikes, or if he used them to burnish his terrorism-fighting credentials with an election in mind (as with a lot of this, you can decide which is cynical and which is generous).

I tend to think it is mostly the former, with a touch of the latter sprinkled in.  Obama, certainly going back to the debates in 2007, recognizes the threat from al-Qaeda and was ready to go after them, but also hated the idea of sending American troops to fight and die any more than was necessary.  This idea matches his domestic policies- try to do the most good and the least bad in ways that are possible (strictly from his point of view; Greg won’t let me get into domestic politics).  This was seen in health care and it was seen in Libya.  Single payer is off the table, so do insurance reforms.   Invasion wasn’t going to work, so coax allies into doing the heavy lifting while doing what only America can do- a concerted air campaign.  So it is, I think, with drones.

Drones take enemies off the field without putting American blood on it.  This seemed strategically sound in the short term, at least, and was politically smart.  I don’t think that is particularly cynical.  All politicians everywhere think that way, even if we wish they didn’t.  I just read a WWI history book, and so many decisions were made due to domestic politics, even during the white-hot insanity of that war. 

Now, I think, Obama the Warrior has more maneuvering room to become Obama the Peacemaker.  Here is the obligatory Nixon in China reference.   It stands to some reason that while drone strikes won’t go away, due to the momentum and military logic (and because they “work” in a narrowly defined sense), they will no longer be the center of our Yemen policy.

It is cliché, but accurate, to say that drones create enemies even as they destroy them.  I think that is a bit overblown: not everyone becomes an unstoppable revenge machine even if their family is killed.  Hate doesn’t always lead to joining a militant group.  That said, any enemies we create make it harder for the US to act as a mediator inside of Yemen, or to be believed as a friend, and further chaos inside the country creates room for those who have motivation and means and desire to attack the US.  So even if you don’t believe that for every terrorist killed 10 more take his place- and I don’t- it is pretty clear that drones only serve a narrow, and possibly self-defeating, part of our policy.

 The big question with Yemen policy is how much attention will be paid.  Syria, Libya, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan and still Iraq are clamoring for attention, and Obama has been trying to pivot to Asia, to have us less involved in the Middle East.  It goes without saying that what comes next is speculation, but I base it on having been fascinated by the guy since back when he was a state senator.  And of course, this is what I think he will do, not what I recommend.  

The big thing to remember about Obama is that he generally only wants to intervene where he thinks we can do well (not just good) unless it is absolutely necessary.

1)    I think that because there seems to be nothing good to do with Syria, there will be a minimalist approach to it.  It will be like Libya, trying to get others to take care of it and helping out.  He might want to make a mark here, but I see avoidance.  It is a hideous tragedy, but I think it is one in which the President thinks we can avoid being drawn into, as cynical as that may be.  If we can’t do that much good, stay away.

2)    Libya: see above.  We’ve done good there, let’s figure out Benghazi, help to keep things stable, help the government, but leave the heavy lifting to allies.

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3)    Iran is vital, and impossible to get away from.  I won’t speculate of policy, but it will still be important.

4)    Egypt, I think, we’ll just try to work with the government.  I don’t think the administration is interested in making Egypt a paragon of democracy, and I think philosophically, the President is ok with them voting for the Muslim Brotherhood as long as the choice seems to comport with what the people actually want, and as long as it doesn’t declare war on Israel or the US.  Again, a bit distant and cynical, but I think the approach will be keeping our hands off except where our interests are concerned.

5)    Israel/Palestine.  Second term.  Every President wants to solve this during their second term.  I have no idea if he is going to resist that mess.  A lot will depend on Bibi, and the election next January.

Afghanistan has already been litigated, and I think we’ll see the POTUS handle Iraq in much the same way he will handle Libya and Syria.   So that leaves Yemen.  It is my opinion that Obama cares deeply about terrorism, and especially al-Qaeda, and especially AQAP.   After all, they announced the organization on his inauguration day in 2009.   I think he sees them as linked to him, and that their destruction is very personal to him.  I think both for what he sees as the security of the country and his own legacy (again, every politician everywhere), Yemen will be a priority.  It also lets him see himself in his favorite way, as the guy who thinks outside of conventional wisdom, because: who was talking about Yemen a few years ago?  The author recognizes that there might be charges of projection here, but I think it is true.

So, in conclusion, my belief is that Obama sees a large national interest in Yemen, and is interested in it on a personal level.   He might not want to do much with Syria, and might want to stay away from Libya, and may not want to have to deal with Bibi or the Brotherhood, but Yemen hits the sweet spot of Obama policies.  A place from which America is threatened, where it can do good, where new technology can save the lives of soldiers without dampening America’s military projection, and where personal diplomacy can help to unite a country.  While Yemen won’t be on top of the list of concerns, it won’t be on the bottom either.  Less drones, more aid, more diplomacy, and an attempt to solidify a legacy. It is the perfect place to work on the Obama Doctrine: do good, but only if you can do it well.


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