John Brennan

President Obama, take two

This week began with the second inauguration of Barack Obama here in the US, and with a series of air strikes--likely carried out by American drones--in Yemen. In fact, there have been six or seven strikes within the last week, though the exact number of resultant casualties is unknown. Along with these "kinetic" events, recent weeks have featured another kind of activity from President Obama. Mr. Obama has announced his nominations for CIA Director and Secretary of Defense. If things go according to plan, John O. Brennan--who has been Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor and is generally thought to be the most important man in Washington for Yemen policy--will take over the CIA, and Chuck Hagel will head to the Pentagon. Obama's nominee for Secretary of State, John Kerry, breezed through confirmation hearings yesteday. Mr. Kerry said during his hearings that he wants to see a demilitarization of US foreign policy, that "we cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontation." I couldn't agree more, as any reader of this blog knows. I wish Mr. Kerry the best, and I do expect that he'll try to redirect this country's foreign policy priorities to some extent. But it'll be an uphill battle, especially when it comes to Yemen. Within his own department, the rising trend of the fortress embassy (exemplified by the growing "Green Zone" around the embassy in San‘a) is a major hindrance to this objective. And Kerry will have to claw back control of the Yemen portfolio from the NSC, DoD, and CIA , if he even wants it. While I'd love to see him really shake things up at State, I don't know that Kerry is willing to take the kind of risks that might disqualify him from higher office in the future.

Gregory Johnsen and Micah Zenko, among others, have made the case against John Brennan as CIA director (and indeed, against John Brennan as decent human being), based in large part on his handling of America's war in Yemen. There are others who argue in Brennan's favor. Some say he has worked within the president's CT team to limit the use of targeted killings, and that he will work to demilitarize the CIA. Joshua Foust gives Brennan the benefit of the doubt on that issue and explains the choices Brennan will face at CIA in this brief piece.

Chuck Hagel will be, if confirmed, the first former enlisted soldier to serve as Secretary of Defense. As a young man at war in Vietnam, he was wounded and decorated multiple times. Critics in congress see Hagel as not hawkish enough to lead the country's military. Hagel himself says that he is not a pacifist, but will do anything in his power to avoid involving America in a new ground war. This conviction sounds like a pretty good fit with Obama's idea of war; this administration favors a "small footprint" in foreign operations, hence the focus on air power and cooperation with local forces in Yemen.

It's doubtful that any of these men will push the Obama Administration toward any major changes in its policy toward Yemen if status quo is what the president has in mind. It is possible, however, that Mr. Obama himself is interested in trying a new strategy in Yemen and elsewhere.  His administration is notoriously opaque, so if he and his team are planning to significantly change their approach to certain foreign policy challenges, the public shouldn't expect to hear it from the president until such plans have been implemented and appear to be bearing fruit.

A "comprehensive" approach

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.

US Yemen policy: worse than you thought

Over the past few days, most Yemen-watchers (both Yemeni and foreign) on the internets have expressed dismay over the possibility that the United States would allow President/Former President/Honorary President 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh into this country. As of yesterday, if the New York Times' sources are to be believed, the Obama administration had as good as made up its security-addled mind to grant Saleh a visa "for legitimate medical treatment" in New York City. I've talked to a few people this week who don't understand why I think this is a terrible idea. If you're one of these people, I suggest you read Andrew Exum's post from last night on the subject, because I don't feel like repeating what's already been well said. The main points I'd like to make are that, while we all know by now that Obama's CT advisor John Brennan has more say on Yemen policy than the entire State Department, the US government has been pursuing a full-court press of stupidness when it comes to Yemen and Arabia in general, and that the administration is not prepared for the consequences of this stupidity.

On Friday and Saturday the Saleh regime's security forces attacked protesters who had made a five-day march from Ta‘iz to San‘a, killing at least 10 and injuring dozens. US Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein decided this would be a good time to say publicly and on the record that the marchers were not, in fact, peaceful protesters, but agents of chaos and violence. Even for Yemenis accustomed to America's arrogance and wrongheadedness, this statement was shocking.

The administration officials quoted in the NYT article above are quick to blow off any suggested parallels between their decision to host Saleh now and the Carter administration's welcoming of the Shah of Iran in 1979. They've got all kinds of justifications for the decision, which might even sound convincing to some Americans. These justifications are misguided and dangerous. Let me spell this out in terms simple enough for John Brennan to understand: for 11 months, Yemenis have demanded the ouster of Saleh and the establishment of a democratic government. For 11 months, the US has refused to support those demands; has refused to condemn Saleh's murderous repression of his people; has tried to force unwelcome, Saudi-crafted false solutions down Yemen's throat; has repeatedly blamed protesters for the regime's violence against them; has continued to kill innocent Yemeni civilians in ill-conceived and poorly-executed CT efforts; has continued to support the regime's military; and now appears ready to allow Saleh to take a free vacation in New York while his children continue to murder Yemenis. In short, the Obama administration is treating the people of Yemen as The Enemy. Can any of us really expect Yemenis not to return the favor?

Mr. Brennan, how do you think this will end?