November 01, 2010

Early Thoughts on Yemen

This weekend's news has already generated a lot of comment, and as I am not a bona fide Yemen expert, the best I can do in terms of analysis is point toward Greg Johnsen's piece in Foreign Policy as well as Leah Farrall's post on AQAP. (Two other people whose opinions I would be seeking right now would be Chris Boucek at Carnegie and April Alley at ICG.) The last thing I myself wrote on Yemen, with Rich Fontaine, I wrote a year ago, but as I read through it this morning, I think it is still pretty solid. (Like all things I write for CNAS, I sent it out for some external review beforehand to avoid saying something stupid.)

A few things have bothered me about the way in which the media has reported the bombing plot thus far, though. You'll remember that last week, concerning Central Africa, I wrote that policy-makers should ask four questions -- in sequence -- before considering an intervention:

  1. Will an intervention make the situation better, or worse?
  2. If better, should the U.S. government participate in this intervention?
  3. If yes, should the U.S. government lead this intervention?
  4. If yes, what should the U.S. government do?

Reading the Wall Street Journal on the way into work this morning, I could not help but notice the focus has been almost exclusively on Question #4. Typically, we Americans are always asking ourselves, What is our government doing? (And why isn't it doing more!)

Though I am not a Yemen expert, I have spent more time in 2010 elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula than in any other year, including two trips to Saudi Arabia and one to the UAE. I got the opportunity, during both of these trips, to speak to a variety of policy-makers in each country, and one of the things I wish U.S. reporters would do more of is ask some of Yemen's neighbors how they would solve the problems of Yemen. This latest plot was apparently tipped off by Saudi intelligence (BTW: shukran, ya ikhwani) and involved bombs passing through both Qatar and the UAE. So the other nations in the region have a bigger interest than we do in shepherding the demise of AQAP. I guess what I am trying to say here is that I want fewer articles with datelines from Washington and more articles with datelines from Doha and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. (One of the reasons I'm still feeling pretty good about that policy paper written last year is the stress it put on regional engagement and solutions.)

Also, we have now dodged two bullets from Yemen, but that does not mean we do not have the time to slow the bleep down and first gather a little situational awareness before screaming for policy makers to DO SOMETHING. As an Afghanistan expert tweeted this weekend, "Whenever something like the Yemen event the amateurs scream for revenge or bombs or ninjas. But people need to take a step back and THINK."

Leaving aside my stated policy preference for pirates over ninjas, I think that's pretty good advice.