Marc Lynch

Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, Yemen.

Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, Yemen.

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!