April 1, 2013

Danya Greenfield is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House.

Most news out of the Middle East these days is dispiriting: the devastating civil war in Syria, the autocratic nature of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, continued militia activity in Libya, a coalition collapse in Tunisia. Less discussed, and surprisingly positive, is the political situation in Yemen.

The United States has played a significant role in Yemen’s transition, which ushered out former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in exchange for immunity, and inaugurated a unity government and consensus president that are overseeing a national dialogue launched last month. The United States has pledged support for the dialogue, which will lead to a constitutional referendum and new elections.

To many Yemenis, however, Washington is narrowly focused on short-term security concerns and the fight against terrorism; the United States, they think, cares little about real political change. As Yemen’s transition enters a critical stage, Washington has an opportunity to change this image by redirecting its policy to greater emphasis on stability, prosperity and democracy, which would advance both U.S. and Yemeni interests.

Despite considerable U.S. humanitarian aid and development support to their government, most Yemenis associate U.S. engagement with the ongoing drone campaign to destroy al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and they see it as having little regard for its effect on civilians. A number of former U.S. military and intelligence officials argue that the drone program’s costs might exceed its benefits. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal has articulated the hazards of overreliance on drones, and Gen. James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned last month against unintended consequences, arguing that no matter how precise drone strikes may be, they breed animosity among targeted communities and threaten U.S. efforts to curb extremism.

With drone attacks breeding discontent and anti-American sentiment, the Obama administration must rethink how the United States can advance its objectives without letting tactics dictate strategy. Washington seeks to balance multiple priorities in Yemen: supporting stability in the Arabian Peninsula, disrupting terrorist networks, securing waterways and aiding Yemen’s transition to democracy. By focusing primarily on acute, short-term threats, the United States risks the long-term security that benefits both nations and can be achieved only through a sustained investment in the humanitarian, economic and political development of the Yemeni people.

Thirty-one foreign policy experts and former diplomats — including us — sent a letter to President Obama last week that said the administration’s expansive use of unmanned drones in Yemen is proving counterproductive to U.S. security objectives: As faulty intelligence leads to collateral damage, extremist groups ultimately win more support. The lack of transparency and accountability behind the drone policy set a dangerous global precedent and damage Washington’s ability to influence positive change in Yemen and the region. Drone strikes heighten animosity toward the United States and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government for compromising Yemeni sovereignty.

The United States, the letter counseled, should reduce its reliance on drone strikes and instead invest in a long-term security agenda. This would include strengthening institutions that enhance the capacity and professionalism of Yemen’s security forces — not only counterterrorism units — to address threats to internal security. Washington already supports the restructuring of Yemen’s military, a step mandated by the transition agreement, but the Defense and State departments should ensure that our military assistance does not repeat the mistakes made during Saleh’s tenure, such as ignoring power concentrated in the hands of elites or not prosecuting human rights abuses. And building a capable police force recruited from residents in partnership with local communities is essential to securing this territory.

Americans and Yemenis have a strong shared interest in combating extremism, as al-Qaeda and its local affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, spread in the south and pledge acts of terrorism against both Yemeni and U.S. targets. The United States should not ignore this threat — but beyond the security portfolio, Yemenis need to feel that Washington is committed to supporting democratic institutions and the prosperity of the Yemeni people. Although the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are engaging Hadi’s government on development and humanitarian issues, most Yemenis feel only the negative effects of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Rather than the steady stream of military delegations, a more robust economic assistance program and public diplomacy strategy — including a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry and other high-level diplomats — would signal support for Yemen’s transition and its democratic aspirations.

Yemen’s national dialogue is an ideal opportunity to break with a legacy of corrupt leaders who sought personal gain at the nation’s expense. The Obama administration can encourage this process by providing international cover for the difficult decisions delegates must make to craft a new political system based on equitable power-sharing, active citizenship and tolerance. This requires the administration to examine its own policies and shift course where the status quo undermines our shared interests. Despite negative attitudes toward U.S. policy, Yemenis are eager for an authentic partnership with the United States — built on transparency, accountability and a demonstrated commitment to their future.