I keep harping on our lack of strategic thinking in the United States.  I know many people consider this an academic exercise, as in (paraphrasing): “Ivory toward academic Bernard Finel keeps suggesting we consider strategy explicitly, but the reality is that we have a complex threat environment and receive plenty of guidance from senior leaders about priorities.”  But the current situation in Yemen highlights the problems with relying on “in-box” driven priority assessment to drive policy debates.

In Wednesday’s WaPo, Dana Priest (“U.S. military teams, intelligence deeply involved in aiding Yemen on strikes”) reports,

U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.


The broad outlines of the U.S. involvement in Yemen have come to light in the past month, but the extent and nature of the operations have not been previously reported. The far-reaching U.S. role could prove politically challenging for Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who must balance his desire for American support against the possibility of a backlash by tribal, political and religious groups whose members resent what they see as U.S. interference in Yemen.

I would love to know how the discussions about Yemen strategy have developed inside the administration because this deepening involvement is a prime example of the challenge I have tried to highlight.  There are al Qaeda operatives working in Yemen.  Killing them may, in the short-run, disrupt their operations.  That is a worthwhile goal. 

But what are the long-term consequences of a deepening U.S. involvement?

This is not a trivial question.  Once you begin to use force — with or without the consent of a local government — you become deeply embedded into the security environment in that country.  From there it becomes logical to further deepen the involvement over time.  Recall the argument over Afghanistan policy.  Many proponents of escalation argued (paraphrasing): “Well, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to get so deeply involved, but we are there now and how to deal with things as they are, not as we would wish them to be.”

In Yemen, our use of force now is creating the antecedent conditions that will later on justify more and deeper intervention, in part because by allying ourselves with the Saleh government we both make all of his enemies our enemies and we also because we are extending a tacit offer of protection because at some point, someone will argue, “we have to back Saleh, otherwise other Muslim leaders won’t be willing to side with us.”

But if we step back and think about end states — i.e. begin a process of strategic assessment — isn’t it obvious that the goal for the United States ought to be disentangle itself from politics in a place like Yemen and seek to insulate ourselves from disorder that may arise there?  There is no coherent U.S. interest in support of mediating the various internecine disputes on the Arabian peninsula, is there?

As a consequence, this deepening involvement, even though it satisfies a visceral urge to whack some bad guys does not necessarily contribute to any long-term desire national security goal.  Which isn’t to say that in striking al Qaeda operatives we are not gaining some measure of security in the short-term. 

But without a sound strategic framework in place, how can we weigh the long-term costs against the short-term benefits?

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  A previous version of this essay was published at ASP’s Flash Point blog. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.