Now is the right time to reevaluate US policies in Yemen as President Barack Obama begins his second term and while Yemen is at a critical juncture in its political transition. On March 26, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) hosted an event in Washington to assess the Obama administration’s progress in recalibrating its policies toward Yemen, and to discuss the merits of an approach that addresses Yemen’s pressing economic, political, and humanitarian challenges, instead of focusing predominantly on counterterrorism.
At the event, the Hariri Center and POMED released a letter to Obama outlining recommendations for an alternative approach for US policy toward Yemen, with the support of leading foreign policy experts including former American diplomats, analysts, and journalists.
The event featured a panel discussion with Hafez al Bukari, the director of the Yemen Polling Center, Steven Heydemann, the senior advisor for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute for Peace, and Danya Greenfield, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. POMED Executive Director Steven McInerney moderated the discussion.
Hafez al-Bukari began by revealing the findings of recent polling, which highlight the main concerns of Yemenis: poverty, unemployment, and a lack of government services. He noted a mismatch between these concerns and their perceptions of US policies in Yemen, which the Yemeni people view as overwhelmingly focused on counterterrorism. Al-Bukari advised the US government to focus on producing tangible results for the Yemeni people such as schools, roads, and hospitals while strengthening the state and rule of law so that the Yemeni government can adequately address security issues.
Steven Heydemann continued the discussion, praising the Obama administration’s efforts to craft a Yemen policy that focuses on humanitarian, development, and reform goals in addition to counterterrorism initiatives. However, he lamented that counterterrorism efforts have eclipsed this broad approach, especially in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Heydemann expressed concern that the National Dialogue will fail to address the underlying causes of instability in Yemen and may even exacerbate tensions in the country.
Danya Greenfield shared insights from her recent trip to Sanaa, and cautioned of the dangers for US goals in Yemen and the Gulf region more broadly if the United States is seen as supporting the status quo in Yemen and allowing the same elites to remain in power. Greenfield explained that even though the United States is providing funding for the National Dialogue as well as other non-military endeavors, the emotional and political impact of US counterterrorism policies—typified by drone strikes—outweigh all other US action in Yemen, at least at the popular level. Furthermore, Greenfield argued that the efficacy of drone strikes as a counterterrorism policy must be questioned, adding that they should instead be a rarely used tactic in an overall strategy, and not the sole strategy.
In closing, Greenfield urged the administration to recalibrate US policy in order to address economic issues in Yemen, reevaluate the reliance on drone strikes, offer Yemeni security services better training and assistance, reach out to underrepresented communities rather than relying on the same elites who have been in power for decades, push President Hadi to meet the benchmarks that he agreed to under the transition agreement, and engage with the Yemeni government in a more subtle way so that the US does not undermine its credibility.