How the U.S. Can Best Help Yemen

Yemeni President Saleh, a key ally in the fight against terrorism, might do more for the U.S. by stepping down than by remaining in power

Yemen looks set to follow the new precedent in the Middle East, as thousands of angry citizens take to the streets to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's thirty years of rule. While Yemen's leaders and people will ultimately determine their own future, this upheaval represents an opportunity for the United States to alter its engagement with the country and its government -- and, in the process, both support democracy and marginalize al-Qaeda. We currently see U.S. policy in Yemen as a difficult choice between supporting pro-democracy protesters or supporting Saleh, our ally in the fight against terror. But there might be a way for us to accomplish both.

Yemen's protests in recent week are taking on a different tone than such demonstrations normally do. The Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of opposition groups leftover from Yemen's many civil wars, have normally shied away from outright calls for Saleh's ouster. And so it was for the first several weeks of Yemen's protests, with the JMP steadfastly refusing to call for revolution, and instead asking Saleh for electoral reforms that would allow their participation. Meanwhile, thousands of university students ran through the streets, demanding radical changes to the government and Saleh's immediate resignation. But, as the protests escalate and look more likely to succeed, the JMP has refused Saleh's call for unity. They, too, now demand "the fall of the regime."

How can the U.S. help chart an appropriate path forward, without too heavily imposing itself on an internal Yemeni conflict? President Obama will want to continue emphasizing his global strategy of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda. Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local branch in Yemen, the biggest threat facing the U.S. So far, efforts to monitor and disrupt AQAP have relied substantially on massive aid to Yemen's security services -- including the support of a U.S. "Counterterrorism Unit" within Yemen itself. Saleh funnels off a great deal of our aid money to help himself stay in power, so he's hardly an ideal counterterrorism partner, but he is still our partner, which is a big part of why the Obama administration has been so hesitant to push Saleh as it pushed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to reform and, later, to leave.

U.S. engagement in Yemen is predicated on the assumption that the only way to degrade or destroy AQAP is through close collaboration with President Saleh's government. This assumption creates a familiar set of perverse incentives among both the U.S. and the host government: the former does not wish to destabilize the regime, even for reasons that are good in any other circumstance, and the latter does not wish to ever defeat the terrorist threat since that would dry up the enormous subsidies America lavishes upon his regime.

But we're not as reliant on Saleh as we might think, and the aging strongman's greatest contribution to U.S. counterterrorism interests could be acquiescing to the protesters. Whether that means instituting reforms or stepping down altogether is a matter for Saleh and the protesters to hash out, but the U.S. could nudge Saleh in the direction of reform. Thanks to the political space created by the last few weeks of massive protest, the U.S. can play a major role in empowering long-marginalized communities within Yemen's north and south. Raising the political and economic stature of these aggrieved groups will dramatically alter AQAP's ability to move and find cover within the country. The U.S. could start by removing its survival guarantee for Saleh. For opposition groups to effectively pressure Saleh to change, they need the credible threat that they could drive him out of office, but as long as the president enjoys such strong U.S. support, they won't have it.

When boiled down to their simplest components, the many opposition groups in Yemen -- including AQAP -- are driven by political and economic problems, not military ones. The Houthi separatist movement in the north stems from a sense of political and economic marginalization: they feel isolated within Yemen, and think they've been unfairly excluded from economic opportunities and the chance to participate in their own government. In the South, many opposition groups feel the same way. Except for the small movement advocating outright secession from Yemen (a return to the pre-1990 territory of South Yemen), most groups are mostly concerned that they are not sufficiently representation in the government and cannot develop economically because of a broken relationship with the center of power in Sana'a. Many other rural communities, which are not a part of either the Houthis or the Southern Movement, feel much the same way -- and while they do not engage in outright rebellion they are nevertheless hostile to Saleh's negligent rule. AQAP plays into this sense of grievance, especially in the South: it positions itself as the defender and promoter of these communities against the depredations of the central government, and thus enjoys moderate political support and, ultimately, cover for its actions.

The U.S. can't determine who rules Yemen but how, but with the country in such a state of flux, we have an opportunity to guide Sana'a in a direction that would be mutually beneficial to our counterterrorism interests and, perhaps more importantly, to the Yemeni people. One place the U.S. could start is by changing the nature of its economic assistance to the country. Of the $106.6 million that the Obama administration requested for Yemen in 2011, only about $12 million is dedicated to economic development projects. USAID's projects remain focused on, essentially, relief work in vulnerable, rural communities. While this is noble, it is not a long-term view, nor does it address the structural problems that exacerbate Yemeni poverty. Yemenis are moving in ever-increasing numbers from the countryside into the cities, yet there is very little effort made to improve urban services and job offerings. USAID should shift its development efforts from improving a diminishing part of Yemeni society -- isolated, rural agricultural communities -- to creating vibrant markets in the cities. Markets, not animal husbandry, make economies grow.

President Obama has thus far only called for "restraint" on the part of the Yemeni government. Were he to instead call for Yemen's government to allow full political participation by Yemen's many communities, it might weaken Saleh's ability to crush dissent, forcing him to govern more justly and effectively. After all, the Yemeni president depends on the U.S. for much of his operating budget - the prospect of losing U.S. support could push Saleh in a bette direction. His regime might not survive a free election in Yemen, but with political marginalization driving so much unrest -- including, most importantly, domestic tolerance and support for AQAP -- advocating democratic reforms is not just a nice idea but an urgent security priority.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters