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Posted at 10:51 AM ET, 01/27/2011

A difficult challenge in Yemen

By Adam Serwer

Protests in the Middle East, inspired by Tunisia's popular uprising two weeks ago, pose a particularly difficult challenge to the administration. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama declared that "the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people."

But now the protests in Egypt, and particularly in Yemen, put the administration in a difficult position. In both countries, the U.S. has opted to support authoritarian leaders out of the view that stability served U.S. national security interests. As Marc Lynch writes, there's nothing new about this: "For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies -- to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today." As Matt Duss writes, given "that we've sponsored them for decades," the U.S. has a "responsibility to pressure these regimes away from violent crackdowns."

Yemen is also anything but stable, and of the three countries is perhaps least likely to transition to something resembling a peaceful democracy. It faces a rebellion from Shiite groups in the north and a separatist movement in the south. And now protesters, inspired by Tunisia, are demanding that Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has remained president of Yemen for more than thirty years, step down.

Both countries have been allies against al-Qaeda, but Yemen is where the most high-profile U.S. target since Osama bin Laden, American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, is located. The administration links several recent terrorism plots, including the infamous attempted underwear bombing in 2009 and the more recent plot involving printer cartriges, to al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The administration has relied on Saleh as a key partner in their counterterrorism efforts. The Washington Post's Dana Priest has reported that American forces have assisted the Yemeni government in counterterrorism operations against AQAP. Saleh has given the U.S. cover for its use of targeted drone strikes against AQAP by taking credit for them. Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen says that nevertheless, the drone strikes have provoked popular sympathies for extremists.

Johnsen has also argued that the administration's focus on seeing Yemen "only through the prism of counterterrorism" has produced the kind of instability they were trying to avoid. Yemen's population is also poorer, and there's far more potential for extremist groups to take advantage of a potential power vacuum.

The jury's still out on how these popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen will resolve themselves. As Lynch writes, such regimes are "quick studies when it comes to their own survival, and quickly adapt when challenged." But in deciding how to respond to Yemen, the administration faces the most acute choice between rhetoric and immediate national security interests.

By Adam Serwer  | January 27, 2011; 10:51 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy and national security  
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Another challenge for Yemen is that the country will literally run out of oil and fresh water in 15 years.

Posted by: AdamantiumBeta | January 27, 2011 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Why do liberals ALWAYS look at the Middle East and start saying "We should be on this group's side"

AND that group wants NOTHING to do with the US.

Does anyone remember that just electing Obama was supposed to bring peace to the world? That everyone would see how wonderful the US is, and that would INSTANTLY END ALL THE ISSUES IN THE MIDDLE EAST???


Obama doesnt have any idea what he is doing.

Bombing Pakistan is NOT a good idea - bombing a third country is NIXONIAN.


Posted by: RainForestRising | January 27, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

"Does anyone remember that just electing Obama was supposed to bring peace to the world? That everyone would see how wonderful the US is, and that would INSTANTLY END ALL THE ISSUES IN THE MIDDLE EAST???
Obama doesnt have any idea what he is doing."


Posted by: AdamantiumBeta | January 27, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, AB, he/she/it is a lunatic. Just ignore the rants.

Posted by: pragmaticagain | January 27, 2011 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Kind of interesting to re-examine the role of wikileaks in light of all of this.

Am I right in thinking this was an important precipitating factor in the Tunisian rebellion?

I think this says a lot about the importance of "open secrets" and how the media does us a disservice by failing to report on them. I understand the challenge...but clearly, these open secrets are not things "everybody knows," and when people are actually exposed to these open secrets, there is a powerful response. That is supposed to be the point of journalism, and I think we need to re-examine our media standards in light of what is happening in the middle east as a result of a bunch of cables with "no news we didn't all know already" being leaked and, more importantly, written about.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 27, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Good, informative post that makes me realize how wide the gaps are in my knowledge of all this. We get so hung up on domestic politics while the complicated turmoil in the rest of the world is always a chicken ready to come home to roost.

Posted by: AllButCertain | January 27, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

For a truly interesting and fact-filled review of "modern" Yemen I strongly suggest Kaplan's "Imperial Grunts". Its been a while since I've read the book but I clearly recall thinking that Yemen is as closed to ungoverned as just about any place on the planet.

it is strategically important, based on its geographic position so having the ability to traverse it is important to us.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | January 27, 2011 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I'll take a look.

Posted by: AllButCertain | January 27, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for a thoughtful, and IMHO important post.

If anyone wonders why we've had our heads up our rectum when it comes to Foreign Policy just check out today's P.L. I think I'm only the 9th poster here..less than 1/5 the other threads. If this thread had been about Sarah Palin, Adam you would have been swamped.

We have met the enemy and it is US. We wallow in our own ignorance.

"Another challenge for Yemen is that the country will literally run out of oil and fresh water in 15 years.

Posted by: AdamantiumBeta"

Thanks for that bit of information AB. Do you know this from friends or relatives in Yemen or did you just read it somewhere?
Whatever thanks for your posts and we hope you for your WTF...yeah WTF indeed. LMAO

RFR has a gazillion sock puppets and comes here to simply make mischief not to actually engage. If you stay with us AB you'll quickly recognize he/she/it's rants..the double and triple spacing etc and simply learn to ignore them like the rest of us. RFR is deranged as in suffering from a very, very, very acute case of Obama derangement syndrome.

Posted by: rukidding7 | January 27, 2011 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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