Today I and many other Yemeni and Yemen-watching Tweeters spent a chunk of our day watching and critiquing John Brennan's speech and Q&A session at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Brennan is President Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor, and seen by many as the man in charge of the Yemen portfolio, though of course that file officially resides with the Department of State. Brennan's speech was rather short, and not very informative. He outlined what he claims is America's multi-faceted, "comprehensive" approach to Yemen's current "challenges," and stressed that so-called kinetic counter-terrorism (i.e. killing people) is only the last of several pillars of American policy in Yemen. Mr. Brennan has been saying the same thing for more than two years, as have officials at the State Department. At the same time, a number of other government officials have admitted (usually off the record or anonymously) that the Obama administration is, in fact, only concerned with dealing with AQAP, and views Yemen solely through the counter-terrorism lens.
I've long said that the State Department's plan for Yemen looks good on paper. That was true before the revolution, and it's still somewhat true. But anyone who is honest about it can tell you that what's on paper is not what's going on on the ground. Even the most well-intended policies are worthless if they cannot be implemented. More importantly, the Yemeni people no longer believe a word of what Brennan and his colleagues have to say. I almost choked when Brennan said the following (quoted also by Gregory Johnsen):
"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits of AQAP."
Well, Mr. Brennan, there's a reason why that wisdom is conventional. I have no idea--literally none--how Brennan arrived at his conclusion. There has, to my knowledge, been no polling done on the subject recently. Mr. Brennan doesn't talk to ordinary Yemenis when he goes over there, and neither do the embassy staff. But I do, and I can tell you that Yemeni public opinion about America and American policies has never been lower than is is right now. Go ask a Yemeni if you don't believe me. Yemenis I've talked to recently about this topic include intellectuals, activists, western-educated scholars, shop-keepers, bus drivers, students, and unemployed college graduates. They all believe that US CT efforts are killing innocent civilians on a regular basis, that the US has never stopped supporting 'Ali Saleh, and that John Brennan and Ambassador Feierstein are essentially operating as imperial viceroys of the country. What's more, most of the Yemenis I've talked to believe wholeheartedly that the ill consequences of US policy are completely intended, and that the US is driving the total mess that passes for a transition in post-revolutionary Yemen.
Now, it's my belief that most of the negative consequences of US policy are unintended, but this doesn't mean they're unpredictable. The Obama administration knows the following things: 1) much of the Yemeni public, especially the revolutionary factions, despise Ambassador Feierstein, and think that he's far too close to 'Ali Saleh; 2) targeted killings and other violent operations alienate local populations; 3) the mere presence of American armed forces in a country often alienate local populations; 4) the United States has neither the capability nor the political will to serve as midwife for Yemen's transition; 5) AQAP has gotten stronger* and has diversified its operations since Obama began his kinetic campaign against them in 2009 (Brennan denied that US operations are driving AQAP recruitment, but he also said that outside of the hundreds of hardcore AQAP operatives in Yemen, there are now "thousands" of non-members who the organization can rally to arms in certain situations. This may be more a result of San'a's policies than of Washington's, but the correlation shouldn't be dismissed). I could go on.
Knowing those five things (and many more), the administration must understand that its Yemen policy, in its current form, will result in neither the defeat of AQAP nor the stabilization of Yemen's political situation. But the administration also knows that it's under very little domestic pressure to change these policies. Today's CFR event, which was billed as solely Yemen-centric, featured more questions about Syria, cyber-security, and other random crap than about Yemen. And that's at a venue that draws some of Washington's most well-informed foreign policy buffs. So the administration knows that the domestic audience doesn't care what it does in Yemen, so long as there are no more AQAP-initiated attacks on the "homeland."
In the light of those observations, we can more easily read the subtext of Brennan's rhetoric. Part of that subtext is that there is a serious lack of critical, creative thinking going on in the foreign policy wing of the Obama administration. Its treatment of Yemen and of the other "Arab Spring" countries has been predictable and extremely sloppy. Obama's team is fudging its way through the Yemeni "transition" and the war against AQAP because it doesn't have a better idea and doesn't have the energy to come up with one.
The other part of that subtext is a method of management that has become a hallmark of Obama's foreign policy and CT: the method of keeping all high-level decision processes behind closed doors, while assuring the public, the media, and the legislature that these processes are being handled with the utmost sensitivity. Every question is met with the condescending promise that "we're taking care of it, just don't ask us how."
Only if this extreme opacity around the policy-making process is reversed can we hope to see any measure of change in the policies themselves. This being an election year, we can, I suppose, hope that such change is on the horizon. It's much more likely, in the absence of any real pressure, that Brennan's next Yemen speech will be a near-verbatim replay of this one. In the meantime, let's hope the audience comes up with better questions.
*Some would argue that while AQAP has become stronger in some respects, it has been weakened in others, particularly in terms of its ability to launch attacks outside of Yemen. This is an argument that is very difficult to prove, as such operations have always been rare and sporadic.