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What Game Are We Playing in Yemen?

November 08, 2000|RACHEL BRONSON | Rachel Bronson is a national security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

The attack on the U.S. guided missile destroyer Cole points to a dangerous disconnect between the State and Defense departments about what constitutes a threat to the United States, how to manage the threat and what our Persian Gulf strategy should be. The Monday morning quarterbacking over whether it was a safe operation and who was responsible for safety misses the point. The real problem is that State and Defense are operating from different game plans in the Persian Gulf, and the White House is not reconciling them sufficiently. Our partners in the region have picked up on this, leading them to conclude that U.S. policy is not serious. Washington is deadly serious, but in contradictory and confusing ways.

The Defense Department is pursuing a multilateral strategy, trying to link our six Gulf partners into a coherent unit to confront regional threats. Every time Defense Secretary William S. Cohen visits the region, he visits each partner: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman. This is because U.S. military posture in the region depends on each of them. Qatar, for instance, supports important Army resources. Even though each of the six states pursues its own interests, and generally fears the other, the Pentagon seeks out every opportunity to link each state into broader, regional arrangements. To this end it has held environmental security conferences that have included all states, and it proposes an early warning program that includes each state to identify missile attacks.

By contrast, the State Department is pursuing purely bilateral objectives in the region. It works with each country independently on issues such as economic and social reforms. It provides no vision for how the region could cooperate more effectively, largely because it believes the goal to be unrealistic. State views efforts at multilateralism with skepticism because past diplomatic efforts, like the 1991 Damascus Declaration--which envisioned a coalition of Arab forces providing security--have failed.

When the secretary of State visits the region, she visits only one country.

Yemen's centrality to U.S. interests depends on which department's view one subscribes to. In the Pentagon's strategy, Yemen is important and hence the warship Cole's visit. If Yemen, with its population of 17.5 million, could play a more active regional role, small Gulf countries would not be as skeptical about Saudi Arabia's domination of multilateral arrangements. There would be less need for the Gulf partners' historical reliance on Iran or Iraq to balance the Saudis and each other. The Defense Department also recognizes that virulent anti-Americanism and terrorism brewing in Yemen could spill into neighboring countries. Led by its recently retired regional commander, Gen. Anthony Zinni, the Pentagon decided that helping Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh modernize his country and control terrorist elements is in the long-term security interests of the U.S. and regional stability. Finally, having Yemen as a refueling option makes U.S. military movements less predictable. The State Department is more circumspect when it comes to Yemen. It has not embraced military engagement as enthusiastically. It sees Yemen as a dangerous place moving in an unpredictable direction. Because of its bilateral outlook, the role of Yemen in the region is of somewhat less importance. While State is interested in assisting Yemen move forward, its timetable is not as compressed as the Pentagon's. State maintains a reasonable concern that large Navy ships refueling off the coast are not the best way to engage developing states. But without a vision for how Yemen fits into the larger regional picture, State has provided few engagement alternatives.

So who is right? Is engaging Yemen a critical U.S. interest? Our troops and diplomats are there every day, in a country lax and inefficient in enforcing security measures. Notwithstanding the recent attack, the U.S. has done a remarkable job protecting them. But the immediate question of Yemen is unanswerable until the deeper one is addressed: What strategy should the U.S. pursue in the region?

The problem is that competing State and Defense department approaches have not been reconciled. The different approaches confuse our embassies as well as military personnel. They limit the tools available for engagement while sending contradictory messages to our regional partners. The White House, the ultimate and only possible arbiter of this debate, has left policymaking up to the different branches of government, which have come up with very different solutions.

Ten years after the Gulf War, the White House still has not designed a coherent vision for the Persian Gulf. The debate over the Cole and Yemen is another tragic reminder of this fact.

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