November 20, 2009

On the Knife's Edge: Yemen's Instability and the Threat to American Interests

By Andrew M. Exum and Richard Fontaine

U.S. foreign policies of neglect and disengagement rarely accomplish their objectives. Yemen’s current state of affairs highlights this point. Despite facing a multitude of global crises, the Obama Administration must seek to mitigate instability on the Arabian Peninsula.  In this policy brief, CNAS Fellow Andrew Exum and Senior Fellow Richard Fontaine outline the severity of Yemen’s internal security challenges and offer several policy recommendations to improve regional stability and reduce the threat to U.S. national interests.

The deteriorating situation in Yemen demands immediate U.S. attention. Faced by a growing al-Qaeda presence, a separatist movement in the South, and an active insurgency in the North, Yemen must regain control over its sovereignty. Furthermore, Yemen will face three additional national disasters of consequence in the coming decades: a youth population explosion, a water shortage, and a precipitous decline in petroleum output and therefore revenue. This confluence of political, ideological, economic, and environment forces will only increase the likelihood of Yemen becoming a failed state and a more lethal breeding ground for Islamic militant groups.

By committing to a comprehensive engagement plan, the authors argue that the United States can deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary, prevent regional instability, and secure vital U.S. interests. This will require a whole-of-government approach including economic incentives, diplomatic pressure, military assistance, and efforts to encourage political reconciliation. The United States should also engage its regional partners in a dialogue which will benefit both Yemen and its neighbors and work to remove Yemen from the knife's edge.


  • Andrew M. Exum

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

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