John Brennan: “Yemen Matters”

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Yesterday the White House rolled out the president and senior cabinet officials to update America on the long war in Afghanistan. It was with far less fanfare that Obama’s top counter terrorism advisor, John Brennan, gave a speech today at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about U.S. policy in a country sometimes called the next Afghanistan: Yemen.

“Yemen matters,” Brennan said–twice. And it’s not hard to understand why.

Brennan, who rarely (if ever) enjoys a real vacation, explained that he was cooking dinner on Christmas day last year when the White House Situation Room called to inform him that a plane had landed in Detroit carrying a passenger “with a bit of an issue.” That was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the infamous “underwear bomber” who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight carrying 290 people. It marked the first direct attack on the U.S. by an Qaeda affiliate group that relocated from Saudi Arabia to Yemen in 2009. But Yemen had already been a bright spot on the national security radar since the 2000 USS Cole bombing, and the the incendiary anti-American preaching of the Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar al-Alawaki, whom the U.S. has targeted for assassination. Washington’s concern has only grown since the October discovery of bombs planted in airline cargo which originated from Yemen.

Yemen has a lot of problems: ethnic and religious feuding, poverty coupled with declining oil revenues, water shortages, and rampant addiction to the chewable drug khat. And Brennan’s speech made clear that the Obama administration intends to do more than occasionally lob cruise missiles at suspected al Qaeda fighters in Yemen (an officially covert–but not exactly secret–practice that Brennan did not discuss). The U.S. is looking to do no less than help reform Yemeni government and society to make the country less hospitable to terrorists. The U.S. now sends Yemen’s government $300 million in annual civilian and military aid–”to help build the necessary components of a functioning democratic system,” Brennan said, including “promoting political reconciliation, increased government transparency, improved delivery of essential services, support for freedom of the press, the growth of a vibrant civil society, strengthening the rule of law, and free and open election.”

That’s an ambitious to-do list. And, as we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, such change can come at an excruciating pace. Indeed, America’s response to the rise of al Qaeda in Yemen even raises difficult questions of moral hazard, by demonstrating to other poor and struggling countries that the best way to attract America’s attention and money may be through the hosting of a few international terrorists.

Regardless, the effort is already well underway. “The role of our civilian agencies in Yemen is steadily increasing,” Brennan explained, ticking off a long list of federal agencies that have joined the effort–including the departments of Defense, State, Commerce, Treasury, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Agriculture. Meanwhile the U.S. is working to get Yemen into the World Trade Organization, expanding student exchange programs, and supporting international aid efforts for the country. Al Qaeda has certainly gotten our attention.

John Brennan has a clear affinity for Yemen. He noted that the country was one of his first postings after he joined the CIA 30 years ago, and recalled camping out in its barren desert at the time. He described his admiration for the architecture of the capital city, Sana’a, which Brennan has visited four times since he joined the Obama administration. When an audience member asked if Obama should appoint a Richard Holbrooke-style special envoy to coordinate the government’s myriad programs aiding the country, Brennan chucked: “I think some people in the United States government believe I’m the special envoy, since I go out there so often.” Judging from his remarks today, it’s clear that he’ll be going back.

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