US senate discusses Yemen

On Wednesday the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a session about Yemen and the transcripts are now online.

Overall, I think the committee got a pretty good picture of the "Yemen problem" – a valuable antidote to some of the rubbish that is being churned out in the American media.

The peril of focusing too much on al-Qaeda at the expense of other issues does seem to be sinking in. Most of those giving testimony, in their various ways, suggested a more holistic approach – something I have been advocating myself (here and here), as has Chatham House in London.

Barbara Bodine, former US ambassador to Yemen (and Iraq) told the committee: "Yemen is not Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia … it’s Yemen" and made some interesting points about why it is not (at least, currently) a failed state:

  • Yemen lacks the sectarian divides that exploded in Iraq. 

  • Yemen lacks the ethnic/linguistic cleavages of Afghanistan.

  • Yemen lacks the tradition of clan violence found in Somalia or of warlords in Afghanistan. [Up to a point, Your Excellency]

  • Yemen is politically more developed than Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University, and co-author of the Waq al-Waq blog gave a more gloomy assessment. His lengthy presentation went into detail about the rarely-discussed rivalries within the ruling elite, the history of al-Qaeda in Yemen and the background to the Houthi conflict (one of the best explanations of it that I have seen).

Emile Nakhleh, formerly of the CIA, addressed the situation from a security perspective but emphasised that "we should not lose sight of the social factors that drive radicalism and of the regional context of Yemen". He called for an "full array" of methods to be employed, "smartly, selectively, and consistently".

Frederick Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, the leading neocon thinktank, re-presented his recent Wall Street Journal article advocating US support for the Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels. I can guess where he's coming from (Houthi=Shia=Iran) but if you read Johnsen's testimony on the Houthis you'll see why the whole idea is so utterly barmy.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 January 2010.