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If Only We’d Just Spent More Blood and Treasure in Yemen

Five lessons from misadventures in the Middle East that Washington just can’t seem to learn.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The U.S. government decides that some ill-governed authoritarian country in the Arab and/or Islamic world is a potential source of serious trouble. It sends some troops and/or sophisticated weaponry to eliminate the problem, and backs some local leaders in the hope of establishing a better government. But instead of eliminating the bad guys Washington was worried about and producing a new and improved regime, the U.S. intervention merely fuels anti-American hostility and reinforces a simmering internal conflict. The people we back turn out to be corrupt, ineffective, or both, and are either incapable of gaining power or unable to hold on to it. After spending tens of millions of dollars and blowing a bunch of stuff up, we’re back where we started (or worse).

Sound familiar? If reading that first paragraph gave you a profound sense of déjà vu, it’s hardly surprising. With certain variations, this sad story has been playing itself out in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and now Yemen. In each case, the United States has used military force and covert action to combat terrorists and reorganize the politics of some distant country. In each case, U.S. intervention has made a bad situation no better, and often made it worse. Yet despite this long string of failures, there doesn’t seem to be any official recognition that we might be dealing with these problems in the wrong way.

The Yemen debacle is especially instructive in this regard. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and one with a long history of political division and outside interference. There was a bitter civil war there in the 1960s, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt eventually sent some 50,000 troops to the country in a costly and futile attempt to support sympathetic “revolutionary” forces. The country was divided into rival northern and southern halves in 1967, and the so-called People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was a nominal Soviet client state for the next 20 years or so. The two countries agreed to unify in 1990, but deep divisions remained and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced several challenges to his own heavy-handed and corrupt rule. Yemen remains a tribal society to this day, and it is also home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a terrorist group that has organized several attempted attacks on the United States or other Western countries.

Not surprisingly, U.S. counterterrorism policy has focused considerable attention on Yemen. The United States has conducted repeated drone strikes against suspected AQAP members, including the controversial targeted killing of U.S. citizen and extremist imam Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011. When popular protests against President Saleh broke out that same year, Washington helped broker the resignation of Saleh and backed his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. But on Thursday, Hadi was forced to resign after the Houthi movement, a Shiite militia group, seized the capital, surrounded the presidential residence, and demanded a more equitable division of Yemeni resources.

The good news is that the Houthis are hostile to AQAP (which is primarily Sunni); the bad news is that they are also hostile to the United States, tacitly allied with former president Saleh, and reportedly backed by Iran. With the government in tatters, the danger of a new civil war looms large. As Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, commented yesterday: “We are in uncharted territory.”

I’m hardly an expert on the intricacies of Yemeni politics, but there are some broader lessons here that transcend the details of this particular case. And these lessons offer a sobering warning to unrepentant neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, who remain convinced that officials in Washington can control what happens in distant corners of the world with a handful of drones, some well-trained special forces, and occasional infusions of cash.

The first lesson is that the United States lacks a detailed and sophisticated understanding of many societies, and especially those whose history, culture, social networks, and aspirations are radically different from our own. It is hard enough to manage political and social processes in places that we understand pretty well — like the United States itself — but it’s exceedingly difficult to conduct social engineering of this sort in places where one’s understanding is limited. Without detailed local knowledge, it’s impossible to know which leaders to back and which to oppose, or to identify who is competent and who is an unpopular bumbler. Moreover, if outsiders don’t understand the local players, their rulebook, or the complex interrelations between different groups, they won’t be able to anticipate the actual impact of their well-intentioned interventions and they’ll be surprised by all sorts of unintended consequences. State-creation and social engineering is hard enough when you know the landscape and the players; it’s a fool’s errand when you don’t.

A second lesson — and one that is constantly being forgotten — is that military power is a crude instrument that always produces unintended effects. U.S. drone strikes and other activities have undoubtedly killed some number of AQAP members; the problem is that they have also killed plenty of innocent Yemenis, increased sympathy for AQAP in some circles, and generally turned Yemeni opinion against the United States itself. Although a significant number of former U.S. officials and other experts have called for rethinking the basic U.S. approach, there is little sign that such warnings were heeded.

Third, as Sarah Chayes documents in her important new book, even well-intentioned outside interference often reinforces the corruption that makes local governments unpopular and ineffective. When the United States and other aid providers start dispensing bundles of cash to chosen clients, those clients are invariably tempted to pocket some (if not most) of the loot. This was true back when former president Saleh ran Yemen, and it was certainly the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sad truth is that sometimes there just aren’t many effective tools available to try to shape a country’s politics in the right direction. In these cases, even well-intentioned carrots and smartly wielded sticks won’t have much positive impact.

Fourth, politicians in foreign lands will tell us what we want to hear, whether it’s true or not. This is especially true of America’s various allies in the Middle East, who work overtime to drag the United States into their own local quarrels. In Yemen, Saleh won U.S. support for years by claiming to be a staunch enemy of al Qaeda, though it’s not clear he ever did much to address the problem. And once we get committed to their supposed success, we lose most of the leverage we might have had over their subsequent conduct.

The last lesson is actually a bit of good news: Our counterproductive interference in the greater Middle East is probably unnecessary. To be sure, the usual alarmists are already hyperventilating about an emerging “Iranian empire” (a curious development indeed, given that these hawks also believe U.S. sanctions are bringing Tehran to its knees), but in fact what’s happening in Yemen isn’t critical to U.S. security. To be sure, AQAP does devote some effort to fashioning small-scale plots against the United States or its allies, and AQAP propaganda probably attracts some degree of sympathy among marginalized Muslims in Europe and elsewhere. But as I argued in my column last week, the actual danger that these plots present is minimal, and the best response to them is not to keep interfering in these countries, because that just wins them more followers. Instead, the best response is good old-fashioned intelligence work, effective information-sharing with key allies, a vigilant defense of the United States itself, and a greatly reduced footprint in that part of the world.

Remember, we have a terrorism problem in part because the United States has been repeatedly interfering in the greater Middle East, and not always for the right reasons or with much skill or effectiveness. We aren’t going to reduce that problem by doubling down on the policies that helped produce it in the first place, and especially when even our well-intentioned interventions seem to make things worse instead of better. Do No Harm remains a pretty good principle, and the latest sad chapter in Yemen is just more evidence for that fact. The only question is: Will anyone in Washington take a look at our recent track record, and start working on an alternative approach?

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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