Letter to President Obama on Yemen: More Aid, Fewer Drones, Please

The Atlantic Council and The Project on Middle East Democracy are worried about the drift in Obama administration policy on Yemen, about the lack of attention to urgent development and humanitarian issues there, and about the indiscriminate use of drones, which are likely to do more harm than good.

So they did up a five-page letter to the Obama administration on the Yemen issue, which I thought well of and signed on to. It is in pdf format here (click)

Here is the letter in HTML text:

Coordinated by the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy

June 25, 2012

Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
NW Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama:

The upsurge in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) activity and the assessment by US intelligence agencies that Yemen may be the next battleground in combating terrorist networks brought increased attention and focus to Yemen prior to the recent political upheavals and AQAP territorial advances. While the US actively supported the negotiated transfer of power, underscored by the recent Executive Order authorizing sanctions against anyone who disrupts the transition, as well as by the UN Security Council resolution threatening similar sanctions, the US has also drastically increased the number of drone strikes against extremist targets, granted the CIA enhanced authority to launch drone attacks, and expanded the US military’s role in support of Yemeni military counterattacks against AQAP.

While intensified engagement may be a necessary step toward stabilizing Yemen, as individuals who care deeply about the United States and the future of Yemen, we believe the current US strategy jeopardizes our long-term national security goals. A broader approach that places emphasis on the underlying economic and political problems will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, our national security interests, rather than a primary focus on counterterrorism efforts and direct military involvement.

The US has a fundamental strategic interest in Yemen to address several key objectives: combating AQAP and other armed groups; ensuring Red Sea stability for oil transport and shipping routes; and preserving regional security while minimizing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In each of these areas, Yemen’s stability is critical to achieving the United States’ core strategic interests. In turn, Yemen’s trajectory depends on achieving a successful democratic transition that includes disenfranchised groups, economic growth, and resolution of longstanding regional tensions.

We accept that the US will take action against those who plot attacks against Americans when there is actionable intelligence. However, removing members of militant groups with targeted strikes is not a sustainable solution and does not address the underlying causes that have propelled such forces to find fertile ground in Yemen. In order to systematically address the drivers of extremism, the US should focus on four key areas: a successful transition to a democratic government that upholds the rule of law and protects human rights; supporting the Yemeni government’s provision of basic services and needs (food security, water, fuel, and health); effective military restructuring and the development of a unified command structure that provides legitimate internal security; and economic growth and job creation.

While there are some in the US government who understand the need for a comprehensive approach, the current public diplomacy and implementation of US policy in Yemen conveys the opposite. Although the Department of State, USAID, and others have invested millions in development and governance projects, the perception both in the US and in Yemen is that US policy is singularly focused on AQAP. The Yemeni people need to know that their country is more than a proxy battleground and that the US long-term commitment to the stability, development, and legitimacy of the country matches the more immediate and urgent commitment to the defeat of AQAP.

To do that, the US should fundamentally shift its approach beyond the narrow focus on counterterrorism and should clearly articulate that it seeks to advance Yemen’s social, economic, and political development. The US should recalibrate its economic and governance assistance so that it represents a greater proportion of overall assistance compared with military and security assistance. The US needs to ensure that its focus is on achieving long-term goals, not only short-term objectives.

Threats to American national security will always be the top priority for the US government. The debate is whether to revert to a business-as-usual focus on immediate threats or use the opportunity of Yemen’s transition to recalibrate the approach. It is in this context that we propose the following specific policy recommendations in the diplomatic, political, economic, and security spheres:


. Communicate openly with the Yemeni people about US counterterrorism and security concerns, but place this within the larger context of long-term stability based on a successful transition and economic, political, and social development. Yemenis understand that AQAP is a threat – not only for Americans, but for themselves as well – and most recognize the United States’ legitimate need to confront those who publicly pledge to do us harm. In this regard, the interests of the United States and the majority of Yemenis are aligned, since the growth of AQAP is detrimental to them as well.

. Change the primary face of the US government in Yemen to alter the perception that US interest and attention are solely dominated by counterterrorism and security issues. Specifically, we encourage you, President Obama, to send Secretary Clinton to visit Yemen and clearly articulate this commitment to the Yemeni people. Secretary Clinton’s January 2011 visit was well-received, and a visit to post-Saleh Yemen would send a strong signal of support for Yemen’s transition. Additionally, create opportunities for other high-level officials to make public statements and speeches conveying that the US is making a sustained commitment to Yemen’s political transition, economic development, and stability.

. Elevate Yemen’s importance in the diplomatic sphere and ensure that other bilateral relationships do not dominate or distort the United States’ interactions with Yemen. Deal directly with Yemen and ensure that the US-Yemen relationship is based on American and Yemeni interests. Inclusion of Yemen within the Office of Middle East Transitions would be a positive move and would demonstrate US support for the democratic aspirations of the Yemeni people.


. Support the National Dialogue and encourage representation of a broad range of diverse voices, including women and youth. Yemen is currently working to define the parameters and the mechanics of the national dialogue that was mandated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement. A coordinated approach by international actors to provide assistance and momentum for a genuinely inclusive process will be essential. The US can help set the tone by reaching out more broadly to civil society groups and youth, particularly outside of Sana’a and Aden.

. Increase assistance to international and local organizations that support the transition and democratic institution-building and establish a culture of pluralism and rule of law. Unlike many of its neighbors, civil society in Yemen has a history of engagement on issues of youth and women’s empowerment, civic education, constitutional development, legal reform, political party development, and elections assistance. These organizations need increased and sustained funding streams to allow for strategic planning and technical assistance from international organizations.

. Assist the Yemeni government’s capacity to deliver basic services and meet the minimum needs of its citizens. The government’s capacity to provide adequate access to food, water, electricity, health care, and education is essential for Yemen to succeed in this transitional period and, more immediately, to avoid a humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni government will need to meet the needs of its people more effectively if it is to counter the appeal of extremists by improving the basic quality of life and advancing sustainable development projects.

Economic and Humanitarian Assistance

. Work with Friends of Yemen, and especially the GCC countries, to leverage immediate cash assistance and provide humanitarian aid to address food security needs. With more than 10 million people going hungry daily, Yemen’s distress has reached catastrophic proportions. Beyond the moral imperative of providing assistance to avoid famine and extreme suffering, there is an acute security risk if this crisis leads to greater instability. Yemen’s neighbors recognize the inherent danger in a deteriorating humanitarian environment, and yet their financial support does not create jobs or improve infrastructure. To be serious about addressing the drivers of instability, the US needs to do its share by contributing and leveraging its allies to do the same.

. Coordinate with the UN and other international agencies to ensure appropriate mechanisms to prevent corruption in disbursement of funds. Corruption remains a major issue in Yemen and must be addressed at all levels: in the private sector, the public sector, civil society, and the donor community. The US must take responsibility for the ways the international community contributes to this abuse of power by assuring that assistance is properly channeled.

. Increase non-military, economic assistance and draw upon regional funds to support Yemen, in addition to its bilateral assistance package. US assistance to Yemen should be rebalanced to prioritize economic assistance and to support programs that would improve the business climate and regulatory environment for business in order to support job creation. The US should also allocate funds from the Incentive Fund included in the President’s FY2013 request, if approved by Congress.


. Focus US security assistance on long-term capacity to address legitimate armed threats to internal security. The US should engage with Yemeni institutions, not individuals, and focus on building institutional capacity. The US must ensure its assistance does not support the suppression of legitimate dissent or protest, but Yemen faces armed threats to its own security beyond AQAP and its security forces need to be professionalized to counter these threats.

. Engage actively with the government of Yemen to ensure that security restructuring achieves a unified command structure under civilian leadership, in line with democratic principles and human rights. The US has taken the lead among international players in Sana’a on the issue of security restructuring, and this assistance should be tied to progress on reform benchmarks that are determined through dialogue with the current government. In its efforts to work with the Yemeni government on the security sector, the US should also allocate resources for programs that advance concepts of rule of law and the rights of citizens.

. Reevaluate strategy of drone strikes with the recognition that this approach is generating significant anti-American sentiment and could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups. While the decision on when and whom to strike is weighed carefully within US policy and operational circles, careful attention must be paid to the corrosive political costs of such strikes, both in terms of the specific costs in civilian casualties, as well as its impact on the Yemeni government’s legitimacy and its ability to cooperate with the United States.

As individuals that care deeply about the United State and the future of Yemen, representing a diversity of experience, opinion, and political affiliation, the undersigned urge you and those in your administration to consider and implement these recommendations with the utmost urgency. We lend our names in our personal, not institutional, capacity.


Danya Greenfield, Deputy Director, Rafik
Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic

Rahman Aljabouri, Senior Program Officer,
National Endowment for Democracy

Atiaf Alwazir, Researcher and Consultant

Sheila Carapico, Professor of Political Science
and International Studies, University of

Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow, Council on
Foreign Relations

Dina Dukhqan, Director, Partners for
Democratic Change

Andrew Exum, Senior Fellow, Center for New
American Security

Stephen Grand, Director and Fellow, U.S.
Relations with the Islamic World, Brookings

Stephen McInerney, Executive Director,
Project on Middle East Democracy

Nadwa Al Dawsari, Executive Director,
Partners Yemen

Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Professor,
Princeton University

Juan Cole, Professor of History, University of

Megan Corrado, Counsel, Public International
Law and Policy Group

Charles Dunne, Director, Middle East and
North Africa Programs, Freedom House

Jamie Fly, Executive Director, Foreign Policy

Steven Heydemann, Adjunct Professor,
Georgetown University

Ginny Hill, Associate Fellow, Chatham House
Yemen Forum

Toby Jones, Associate Professor of History,
Rutgers University

David Kramer, Executive Director, Freedom

Emile Nakhleh, Research Professor,
University of New Mexico; Former Director,
Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, CIA

Charles Schmitz, Associate Professor, Towson

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Assistant Professor of

Political Science Hobart and William Smith

Jim Hoop, Managing Director, Public
International Law and Policy Group

Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for
American Progress

Daphne McCurdy, Senior Research Associate,
Project on Middle East Democracy

Andrew Natsios, Executive Professor, George
H.W. Bush School of Government and Public
Service, Texas A&M University

Christopher Swift, Center for National
Security Law, University of Virginia School of

CC: The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton, United States Secretary of State

The Honorable Leon E. Panetta, United States Secretary of Defense

The Honorable Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Responses | Print |

14 Responses

  1. I worry about the use of the word “extremist” in discussing the Middle East. It seems mean anyone who disagrees with us. We label someone an extremist, and then we can discount his point of view and put him on the kill list.

    Is someone who wants to replace the government of Iran an extremist? Or Jordan? Or Israel?

    Extremist seems to be one of those words like “terrorist” that gets thrown around when you want to avoid looking at the underlying issues. Examining legitimate grievances is hard, easier to apply a label and be done with it.

    On the other hand; will anyone in Washington read a document on the Middle East without “extremist” and “terrorist” liberally sprinkled throughout?

    • It seems mean anyone who disagrees with us. We label someone an extremist, and then we can discount his point of view and put him on the kill list.

      Is that how the Obama administration has responded to the leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood?

      • I was a close call. How often have we called the Muslim Brotherhood extremist? Now we may have to live with them. No doubt there is a lot of gagging in Washington!

        • How often have we called the Muslim Brotherhood extremist?

          Who is “we” in this sentence?

          I don’t believe I have seen this President, SoS, or any member of this administration call the MB “extremist.”

          My point is, there are some American political figures who behave as you describe, but just as many who do not.

  2. An appropriately measured and thoughtful piece, one that recognizes that both the short-term security interest and the broader, long-term interest need to be taken into account, and that this will involve some balancing between the two.

    We accept that the US will take action against those who plot attacks against Americans when there is actionable intelligence.

    As any reasonable person would.

  3. Earth Policy Institute May 3 2011 (Lester R. Brown):

    “In neighboring Yemen, replenishable aquifers are being pumped well beyond the rate of recharge, and the deeper fossil aquifers are also being rapidly depleted. As a result, water tables are falling throughout Yemen by some 2 meters per year. In the capital, Sana’a—home to 2 million people—tap water is available only once every 4 days; in Taiz, a smaller city to the south, it is once every 20 days.

    Yemen, with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, is becoming a hydrological basket case. With water tables falling, the grain harvest has shrunk by one third over the last 40 years, while demand has continued its steady rise.

    As a result, the Yemenis now import more than 80 percent of their grain. With its meager oil exports falling, with no industry to speak of, and with nearly 60 percent of its children physically stunted and chronically undernourished, this poorest of the Arab countries is facing a bleak and potentially turbulent future.

    The likely result of the depletion of Yemen’s aquifers—which will lead to further shrinkage of its harvest and spreading hunger and thirst—is social collapse.

    Already a failing state, it may well devolve into a group of tribal fiefdoms, warring over whatever meager water resources remain. Yemen’s internal conflicts could spill over its long, unguarded border with Saudi Arabia.”

  4. “The US has a fundamental strategic interest in Yemen to address several key objectives: combating AQAP and other armed groups; ensuring Red Sea stability for oil transport and shipping routes; and preserving regional security while minimizing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In each of these areas, Yemen’s stability is critical to achieving the United States’ core strategic interests.”

    The notion that the US would, or could, embark on an overarching altruistic effort to transform Yemen into a modern prosperous democracy in order to achieve narrow self-serving “core strategic interests” is beyond reason.

    We starved Iraq for eleven years, then invaded to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime. Try to find some regret among American voters and politicians about what we did to that country.

    We invaded Afghanistan and dispersed the Taliban because they hosted Al Qaeda. In a couple of years we’ll leave that poor country, just about as destitute as we found it, and a ruling blend of the Taliban and ubiquitous corruption. Try to find sympathy in the US for spending any further resources to help develop a stable, modern democratic state.

    Then there is our subtle approach to “minimizing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran”. Extreme economic sanctions,covert military and cyber attacks, and the ultimate threat of overt attack directed against Iran are the tools of our trade. Do these actions sound like tension minimizers?

    I’m sure the Yemenis understand that any trickle down from the US pursuing it’s “fundamental strategic interests” will put very little food on the table, and encourage banana republic style leadership. The stability of Egypt under Mubarak, or royal family rule in Saudi Arabia and the Emerates, is our kind of stability, and the Yemenis know it.

    Besides, we’re pivoting towards the Pacific. Time to get to work on Myanmar, and deploy some tension minimizers to Darwin.

  5. “Yemen faces armed threats to its own security beyond AQAP …”.
    The Yemeni and US governments have been conflating the seperatist groups with al-Queda. For the US to be helping states fight their rebel groups no doubt increases the number of militants who are anti-US.

  6. “While the US actively supported the negotiated transfer, underscored by the recent Executive Order authorizing sanctions against anyone who disrupts the transition…”.
    These sanctions restrict free speech and should be objected to.

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