- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
This afternoon, a sizable Washington audience turned out to watch White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talk about American policy toward Yemen. Imagine that — a large Washington audience turning out in the dead of summer to hear about Yemen! And even better, Brennan began by responding directly to the criticisms of U.S. policy toward Yemen expressed in a recent Atlantic Council-POMED letter to President Obama, which called for moving "beyond the narrow lens of counterterrorism." (I made similar criticisms in this space in January.)
Brennan’s main goal was to push back against these criticisms. It is simply wrong, he argued, to claim that the U.S. views Yemen only from a security and counter-terrorism lens. He laid out the administration’s "comprehensive" strategy for Yemen, including support for the political transition, humanitarian aid and economic development, and institutional reforms. He effusively praised President Hadi and his efforts at institutional reform and political transition, and he emphasized several times that more than half of the increased U.S. aid to Yemen went to the political transition and economic development, not to counterterrorism. Of course at the end he came to AQAP and mounted a spirited defense of drone strikes as ethical, legal, and effective, but the speech was structured to show that these efforts came within a broader political and developmental context. (He also, thankfully, didn’t waste our time blaming Iran for Yemen’s problems).
Now, many would take issue with his presentation of American priorities and actions. I wanted to ask questions about the effectiveness of Hadi’s military reforms, and the feelings of exclusion among many activists and political trends despite the official political dialogue. I don’t think many in the room were convinced by the claims about drone strikes, whether on civilian casualties, anti-Americanism, or legality. But I do think that it’s an unambiguously good thing that Brennan felt the need and the desire to come out and publicly articulate the kind of comprehensive political strategy for Yemen for which many of us have long called. That comprehensive policy might not really be there yet, but the speech was an important point of entry for all future debate about Yemen and I for one found it a positive development to have these concerns addressed so directly.
That’s the good. The bad? After Brennan’s speech about Yemen, moderator Margaret Warner asked only a few desultory questions about Yemen. She then immediately shifted to a series of questions about Syria, which while interesting had nothing to do with Yemen. And then, to an even longer series of questions about cyber-security, neither interesting nor to do with Yemen. And then the controversy over leaks … ditto. The audience started strong, with several questions about Yemen and about drones. But soon enough, attention wandered to Nigeria, to al Qaeda, back to cyber-security, and at its lowest point to an utterly moronic question about the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged penetration of the U.S. government. I worried that the Yemeni Twitterati were going to spontaneously combust from accumulated outrage. Even in an event about Yemen, John Brennan could barely buy a question about Yemen from his easily distractible Washington audience. C’mon, DC!
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Investigation |