Dear President Obama: Let’s Help Yemen instead of Droning It

This is a [pdf] letter to President Obama pleading for a substantial rethink of Yemen policy in his second term, which I among other Middle East experts signed. It was worked up by the Yemen Policy Initiative of the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy. Yemen gets little news coverage in the US but it is a vitally important nation at the mouth of the strategic Red Sea and deserves a more thoughtful Washington policy than just droning its radicals.

Atlantic Council

YEMEN POLICY INITIATIVE Coordinated by the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy March 26 , 2013

Dear President Obama:

With a new national security team now in place, this is an opportune moment to re evaluate US policy toward Yemen. US strategic interests must balance a number of complex priorities: stability in the Arabian Peninsula, the disruption of terrorist networks, secure waterways and access to oil, prevent ion of a humanitarian crisis, and genuine support for Yemen’s transition to democracy. As these challenges evolve, the US must emphasize the importance of Yemen as a stable, secure, and sustainable partner.

Addressing long – term threats to US security — and not focusing primarily on acute, short – term threats — means that we must prioritize the humanitarian, economic, and political development of the Yemeni people . How we achieve that deserves far more discussion and debate. We congratulate your a dministration, the US Embassy in Sana’a, the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on efforts to focus on long – term development and humanitarian needs and to shift funding allocations acc ordingly. Despite fiscal constraints, the US government has leveraged significant resources to support the implementation of the transition agreement and the National Dialogue process.

USAID and other agencies are helping internally displaced persons and the country’s most vulnerable populations. We can be proud that the United States is the single largest contributor of humanitarian aid to Yemen. We also recognize and appreciate the efforts of many US officials to address the recommendations that many in this group advanced in a June 2012 letter. T he se positive developments , however, are considerably hampered by the chronic and pervasive perception both here and in Yemen that the United States pursues its security interests with little regard to the stra tegy’s impact on Yemen itself.

The perception that the United States is singularly focused on al – Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a symptom of this problem . Yemenis understand that AQAP is a threat to both Yemenis and Americans, and most recognize the need to confront those who plan and pledge to attack the U nited States. However, the current approach to combating these threats is proving itself counterproductive and in need of urgent re evaluation.

The United States is right to invest in enhancing the capacity and operational effectiveness of Yemen ’s armed forces. We have worked to provide training and technical assistance to Yemeni security forces for the purpose of combating extremism. President Hadi’s decision to rest ructure the security forces will help the government respond to domestic threats , and US support for a Yemeni – led process to implement this reorganization with a unified, centralized command structure will enhance the effectiveness of security forces. This will ul timately enhance their capability to provide security to Yemeni citizens and disrupt terrorist networks throughout the country. However, the increased reliance on drone s undermines our long – term interest in a stable, secure, and s us tainable partner in Yemen.

A growing body of research indicates that civilian casualties and material damage from drone strikes discredit the central government and engender resentment towards the United States. Where drone strikes have hit civilians , news reports and first – hand accounts increasing ly indicate that affected families and villages are demonstrating and chanting against the Yemeni and US government. This creates fertile ground for new recruits and sympathizers who might provide safe haven or direct support to AQAP and its local affiliate , Ansar al – Sharia. The collateral damage produced by drone strikes, along with the political cost of alienating Yemeni s, reduces the political space within which we can cooperate with and help strengthen the Yemeni government.

By embracing the expansive use of US drones, President Hadi risks undermining the legitimacy of his government . The vast majority of Yemenis likely accept that the Yemeni government must combat violent extremists that have found safe haven in Yemen, but reject US control of this campaign . The US strategy in Yemen is based on the core assumption that a strong and legitimate government is essential to overcome the myriad of challenges the country faces. B y associating itself with drone strikes, the Yemeni government unwittingly undercuts its credibility among st the population . Opposition to drone strikes is becoming a national rallying cry for those distrust ful of the central government — from Ansar al – Sharia, to Houthis , to Southerners. Ultimately, the United States will not be able to overcome the threat of AQAP by military means alone – we cannot simply kill our way out of this problem.

The only effective long – term strategy will prioritize helping the Yemeni government address the very factors that allow extremist ideology to spread: the absence of basic social services, a worsening food sho rtage, and chronic unemployment . The US government has made some positive changes over the past four years in terms of its policy toward Yemen, but m ore can and must be done to set our policy on the right course. Senior administration officials already emphasize our commitment to Yemen’s economic development and political transition, but actions speak louder than words. This is the moment to strengthen this commitment with concrete action .

With the development of a new national security team, your administration is well positioned to make the following changes in US policy:

 Leverage the US government’s close relationship with President Hadi to strongly encourage his government to meet the reform benchmarks to which he has committed and address human rights violations. These commitments arose from a process that President Hadi himself set forth as a result of the GCC agreement, and implementation is critical for the credibility of the process and international support. Your Administration should continue to work with Hadi and his government to empower democratic institutions and processes rather than individuals . Even in a transitional phase, Hadi and his government should focus on combating corruption , while rewarding merit rather than personal relationships.

 Support the National Dialogue in way s t hat empower independent voices — not only political party elites — and include more extensive outreach to Southerners and Yemenis outside of Sanaa and other urban areas . The United States should encourage President Hadi to implement the twenty points recommended by the Technical Committee of the National Dialogue Conference to generate confidence among Yemenis in the dialogue process itself. Credible Southern participation is essential for the success of the dialogue, and concrete measure s should be taken to demonstrate the government’s commitment to a fair process that will address Southern grievances. Beyond the National Dialogue, the United States should reach out more broadly to youth and civil society groups and work with new leaders capable of leading Yemen past the Saleh – era status quo .

 Work within the Friends of Yemen group to ensure that the generous pledges committed to Yemen are delivered and that the government of Yemen has the capacity and resources it needs to implement projects . Beyond the moral imperative of providing assistance to avoid famine and extreme suffering, there is an acute security risk of this crisis leading to greater instabilit y . The US should work with President Hadi and his government to activate and empower the new ly – established Executive Bureau with real decision – making powers to expedite donor – funded development projects, including leverage to push implementing agencies to action. Moving quickly to impleme nt development projects in the South and other vulnerable areas will help instill confidence in Hadi’s government and the dial ogue process.

 Implement a more robust public diplomacy strategy to demonstrate that US interests in Yemen are not limited to counterterrorism and security issues . Although the State Department and USAID are engaging President Hadi’s government on economic , political, and humanitarian issues, most Yemenis are unaware of such initiatives and feel only the negative aspects of US counterterrorism policy. A visit by Secretary of State John Kerry would send a strong signal of support for Yemen’s transition and i ts democratic aspirations. Additionally, other high – level civilian officials — who are not connected to defense or security issues — should make public statements and speeches conveying a sustained US commitment to ensuring Yemen’s economic well – being and demo cratic development through the transition process.

 Reevaluate our reliance on drone strikes with the recognition that this approach is generating significant anti – American sentiment and could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups. While the tactical costs and benefits are weighed by your Administration , the same degree of attention should be paid to the corrosive political costs of such strikes . Particular attention must be focused on the effect of strikes on the central government’s legitimacy and it s ability to cooperate with the United States. At the same time, t he A dministration should work with Congress to develop a more transparent process and robust legal framework to govern the use of drone strikes in Yemen and elsewhere .

 Ensure that security restructuring achieves a unified command structure under civilian leadership and that US military assistance does not perpetuate the same mistakes made during Saleh ’s tenure. US assistance should focus on strengthening institutions to enhance the long – term capacity of Yemen’s security forces to address armed threats to internal security — not only counterterrorism operations. Within such programs, the United States should prioritize the need for Yemeni forces to respect human rights and the rule of law. US security assistance and the delivery of defense articles should reflect progress on reform benchmarks to which President Hadi has already committed .

 Increase economic assistance and draw upon regional funds to support Yemen, in addition to a bilateral assistance package. The US should allocate funds for Yemen from the Middle East Response Fund and the FY13 budget, as approved by Congress. Over the past year, US assistance has increased and shifted the proportion of economic aid relative to military assistance – this is a positive change that deserves recognition. USAID should continue this trend, and f unding should focus specifically on job creation , improving the business and regulatory environments , enhancing civil society capacity and demo cratic institution – building . As individuals who care deeply about the United State s 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 ou r personal, not institutional, capacity.


Danya Greenfield , Deputy Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council,
Ambassador Barbara Bodine , Former US Ambassador to Yemen,
Daniel Brumberg , Professor, Georgetown University
Robert D. Burrowes , Adjunct Professor , Emeritus , University of Washington;
Sheila Carapico , Professor, University of Richmond;
Juan Cole , Professor, University of Michigan;
Isobel Coleman , Senior Fellow, The Council on Foreign Relations;
Megan Corrado , Legal Counsel and Director of Yemen program , Public International Law & Policy Group
Stephen Day , Professor, Stetson University
Charles Dunne , Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs, Freedom House Joshua Foust , National Security Columnist, PBS Need to Know
Stephen Grand , Nonresident Fellow , T he Brookings Institution
Steven Heydemann , Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University
James Hooper , Managing Director, Public International Law & Policy Group
Michael Hudson , Director, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore
Brian Katulis , Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Stephen McInerney , Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy
David Kramer , President, Freedom House
Peter Mandaville , Professor, George Mason University
Ambassador Richard W. Murphy , Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs , Department of State
Emile Nakhleh , Professor, University of New Mexico
Shuja Nawaz , Director of South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council
Stacey Philbrick Yadav , Professor, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Sarah Phillips , Senior Lecturer, the University of Sydney
Charles Schmitz , Professor, Towson University
Jillian Schwedler , Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts
Daniel Serwer , Professor, Johns Hopkins University
Anne – Marie Slaughter , Former Director of Policy Planning, Department of State
Christopher Swift , Professor, Georgetown University
Ambassador Edward Walker , Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs , Department of State
Wayne White, Former Deputy Director, Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Department of State

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4 Responses

  1. this suggestion is just not the american way!

    next, you’d want them to stop droning pakistan, africa, half a dozen other countries …

    then, horrors, you’d want them not to use them in america!

    my god, slippery slope, defined!

  2. Like AIPAC, there is a Yemeni equivalent – YAPAC – the Yemeni-American Public Affairs Council, based in Dearborn, Michigan. Their website is

    YAPAC has assisted in getting Yemeni-Americans get elected to public office in Metro Detroit, but is a national organization. Major politicians like U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow have addressed their meetings. They endorsed President Obama in 2012.

    While the Hariri Center’s effrts are clearly laudable, YAPAC’s contributions to the advocacy of Yemeni interests are also substantial.

  3. The Washingtonian American way to ‘help’ people is to leave them alone. It’s cheaper and more effective in the short, middle and long term. But Americans have this uncontrollable urge to scratch things that itch them. Scratching leads to inflammation and infection, ask a dermatologist.

  4. 29 years ago the path we took led us to 911.if the west will not re look the error of assumption,the only powers that will move towards the future will be China,Russia and the EU.The rest will nuke each other!

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