The Buzz

Obama's Flawed Yemen Strategy

This week, Micah Zenko answered a nagging foreign-policy question: What, exactly, are we doing in Yemen? 

His conclusion: nothing good.

Writing on his Politics, Power, and Preventive Action blog, Zenko puts forth several solid arguments illustrating the flaws in the Obama administration’s Yemen policy, which he calls “America’s Third War.” Broadly, these points fall into three categories.

The first is blowback. Citing the increasing number of drone strikes (“there have been more drone strikes in the past month . . . than in the preceding nine years”), he aptly warns of the resentment likely to be engendered among average Yemenis. One need look no further than the “fervent and impassioned opposition to drones” in Pakistan to see the danger here.

The second is a lack of clearly defined targets. One consequence of waging a quasi war, it seems, is having only quasi-defined strategic goals. Zenko points to contradictions within the administration, with one expert describing Obama’s strategy “to kill or capture about two dozen of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous operatives” and another expressing the administration’s determination to destroy and eliminate the “more than a thousand members” remaining in al-Qaeda. 

Just who should be in the crosshairs is also at issue; since “AQAP’s antigovernment insurgency and its terrorist plotting against the West are two sides of the same coin,” the odds of targeting only anti-American terrorists and avoiding run-in-the-mill insurgents are low. To come full circle, unintentionally targeting insurgents engenders the sort of resentment that could make them terrorists.

These are valid, thoughtful arguments. But they pale in comparison Zenko’s third point: Obama’s strategy in Yemen isn’t working. Concerted military and intelligence efforts “should have...[offered] some early warning of AQAP’s strength, as well as a platform for in-country policies to prevent and mitigate AQAP’s reach.” Quite simply, they didn’t. In Zenko’s words, “the steady accretion of U.S. intelligence collection and strike capabilities have failed to reduce the threat of terrorist plots from Yemen.”

The piece is analytically sound and rather smart. But if Zenko’s aim was to prove the administration’s policy in Yemen is flawed, he could have skipped straight to his final point.