The speed with which Yemen’s conflict escalated last week has taken many by surprise, with a Saudi-led Arab multinational force launching military operations after president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the country by boat on March 25th.
And it’s especially awkward for the Obama administration.
Washington has held up Yemen as a counter-terror model, most notably during President Barack Obama’s September 10, 2014 speech announcing military operations against ISIS.
The idea is that the US would provide intelligence and forms of kinetic assistance (drones, special operations raids, and so on) to partner governments without committing ground troops or asking for internally disruptive political reforms.
The Yemen blow-up puts the administration in an awkward position. Saying the increasingly violent and ungoverned country is no longer a counter-terror model is tantamount to admitting that the premises behind the US’s anti-ISIS strategy are deeply flawed. But saying it is still a model means copping to just how narrow the US’s objectives in the Middle East really are.
A remarkable moment of candor on this front came on March 26 as it became apparent that Yemen’s recognised president had fled the country. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and was asked if Yemen’s breakdown in any way diminishes its appeal as a counter-terrorism model.
Earnest conceded that Yemen’s situation is dire, and then said: “T
he measure of the US policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise.
“The goal of us policy towards Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of US policy in Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven than extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States, and that involves trying to build up the capacity of the government to help us in that fight.”
It’s unusual for a US official to actually admit that Washington doesn’t have political liberalization at the heart of its policy towards an individual country. But Earnest was saying that a government’s mere
is a “separate enterprise” from the US’s policy aims, offering an extraordinary insight what what those aims might really be.
“The fact is even though US personnel is no longer in Yemen, the US continues to have the capacity and resources and reach to be able to take strikes when necessary against extremists that are operating,” Earnest explained.
If Earnest is to be believed, the US’s current counter-terror policies doesn’t require strong institutions or political reforms or even an extant partner government in order to be successful. Earnest’s statements may be an astounding admission of just how little internal political dynamics or the state of Middle Eastern societies matters to current US national security policy.
The alternative — that Earnest is merely trying to spin a situation that’s drawn widespread criticism of the US’s course in the Middle East — is far more comforting.
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