Earlier today Will McCants, Jeremy Scahill, Clint Watts and I had a twitter discussion – or whatever the word is when one is limited to 140 characters – on Yemen and US policy. Will, Jeremy and Clint all write and speak with a great deal of eloquence and expertise on many different things. I do not. In Isaiah Berlin’s world I would be a hedgehog. I hope to one day be a fox, but alas at the moment I’m a hedgehog – if I can tweak Berlin’s definition a bit.
Anyway, Clint suggested – if I’m paraphrasing correctly – that I constantly criticize US policy in Yemen but I never put forward suggestions on what the US should do. Will also pointed out that if one is going to attack US policy one is honor-bound – I don’t think Will used that word, but trust me he is a big honor guy – to come up with an alternative.
I agree with the idea both expressed.
And in fact, I believe I have done this with regard to US policy in Yemen. In 2008 and 2009 I wrote several articles in The Sentinel, the Combating Terrorism monthly journal from West Point suggesting alternatives to what the US was then doing in Yemen. In 2010, I testified before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and laid out five basic steps the US could take in Yemen. In 2011 I wrote several pieces suggesting alternative approaches – one in the NY Times as well as a policy initiative memo for the Council on Foreign Relations. I have also had several, private conversations with individuals in the US government in which I laid out my concerns as well as what I believed were alternatives and I will respect the private nature of those conversations.
All of these – articles and conversations – sank without a trace. Which is fine. I’m not a policymaker. And I know policymakers have many more things than just Yemen on their mind. However, when asked – and often even without being asked – I have provided my opinion for alternatives to what the US is doing in Yemen. So too, for that matter, have several other people who study Yemen professionally – (can a grad student be a professional?)
My frustration with this is similar to the famous seatbelt comment Rory Stewart once made. Namely, I and others provide alternatives, the US listens but doesn’t change, then the situation in Yemen changes for the worse, we give new alternatives and the process starts all over again.
The problems with this is that it has been five years of proposing alternatives while the US approach – a heavy military response that measures success by the number of AQAP operatives killed – has if anything grown more strident while the situation in Yemen gets worse and AQAP grows stronger.
This is why I was so insistent and shrill last year that the US was making a catastrophic mistake is supporting the GCC deal as a way out of the crisis in Yemen. I saw this as a half-measure that would create problems in Yemen for years. I believed that the US had a unique window of opportunity to press for change and that if it missed it – that would be it. Another opportunity wouldn’t come around for quite some time. And, indeed, that I think is the situation the US finds itself in today in Yemen. No alternatives, no outside advice (if it was ever listened to) would help. There is a reckoning for past mistakes. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. And the US has now painted itself into a corner where defeating AQAP is going to take more money, more time and more effort than the US appears capable of or interested in putting forth in Yemen.
Mistakes of policy are rarely immediately relevant. But the mistakes – of both the Bush administration since 2004 and the Obama administration – are now coming back to haunt the US in Yemen. And those ghosts are going to be with us for some time to come.