Midway through Barack Obama’s second term as president, there are two Establishment-approved metanarratives about his foreign policy. One, emanating mainly from the right, but resonating with several liberal internationalists, holds that Obama is unequal to the task of running an empire. The president, pundits repeat, is a “reluctant warrior” who declines to intervene abroad with the alacrity becoming his station. The other, quieter line of argument posits that Obama is the consummate realist, a man who avoids foreign entanglements unless or until they impinge directly upon vital US interests.
As usual, the mainstream assessments are more interesting for their unspoken assumptions than their truth value. In both takes, the president of the United States is appointed ipso facto as a world policeman whose job performance is rated almost solely on the basis of how often he orders the Pentagon into action. But the dominant evaluations of Obama are incorrect as well. And, at least in the Middle East, there is no better illustration than Yemen, the terribly impoverished and perennially misunderstood country in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
Has Obama hesitated to use force? Not if the explosions in Yemen are any indication.
Until the fall of 2014, Yemen was the primary Arab battleground of the Obama administration’s war on terror — but a firing range rather than a front. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been no fewer than 71 US drone strikes in Yemen since 2002, with hundreds of fatalities, including a minimum of 64 civilians. The New America Foundation estimates that US drones and warships have fired 116 missiles at Yemeni territory in the same time period, killing no fewer than 811 people, at least 81 of them non-combatants.
The actual numbers of attacks and casualties are almost certainly higher: Both of these studies rely on methodologies of cross-referencing press reports, and many of the drone strikes occur in remote locales where journalists are few and far between. And the start date of 2002 is misleading. Except for the assassination of alleged al-Qaeda figure Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi in December of that year, all of the strikes have been launched under President Obama.
The White House, indeed, views Yemen as a showcase of its approach toward al-Qaeda and sundry radical armed Islamist groups. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” Obama said in his September 10 speech extending the war on terror once more to Iraq and Syria. There were querulous rumbles on left and right at the notion that the statistics above constitute “success,” but from the Obama administration’s perspective, the claim is self-evident. The war in Afghanistan occasionally makes headlines, when American soldiers are killed or when the failure of US efforts to build a stable Afghan client state is further exposed. The war in Yemen is prosecuted entirely from the sky, with the odd, top-secret drop-in visit from Special Forces, so the dead bodies are all faceless and foreign and the story stays buried in the back pages.
Perception management aside, Obama’s boosters might argue that airstrikes on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are precisely the judicious, low-cost (to Americans) uses of force that a narrow interpretation of the national interest recommends. But this militia poses no serious danger to the continental United States. It has disavowed the so-called Islamic State, or Da‘ish, that declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and it has tenuous connections at best with al-Qaeda franchises elsewhere.
The immediate interest that is served with the Obama administration’s aerial campaign in Yemen is that of the “partners on the front lines,” the would-be central government in Sanaa and its main regional sponsor, Saudi Arabia. These are the parties threatened by AQAP’s implied aspiration to ignite jihadi revolt “in the Arabian Peninsula.” In one sense, therefore, the war against AQAP is a local fight in global camouflage — like so much of the war on terror elsewhere. In a broader sense, however, the airstrikes are part and parcel of the same expansive construction of the national interest that has guided administrations of all ideological persuasions since the 1940s. The US defers to the Saudi monarchy and its Yemeni allies in the name of “stability” in the landmass atop the world’s largest known reserves of oil and natural gas. In return, the US gets a proving ground for its formidable firepower and an open-ended justification for its military hegemony in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
Whether this arrangement delivers “stability” to the region is another question entirely. The escalation of the drone war in Yemen has coincided with deepening political and economic turmoil. The regime in Sanaa was already facing pesky rebellion in the northern highlands and increasingly militant mass demonstrations in the southern provinces that made up an independent country from 1967-1990. Then came the 2011 popular uprising against the three-decade rule of President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, culminating in his nominal removal as part of a “transition” brokered by Riyadh and blessed by Washington. The terms of the “transition” — immunity from prosecution for Salih, transfer of the presidency to his long-time deputy, division of ministries among Sanaa insiders — fell considerably beneath the expectations of the restive population. At press time, with the northern Houthi rebels controlling the capital and southerners demanding independence anew, the future of centralized control of Yemen is in doubt.
Underlying the unrest is the severe maldistribution of wealth. In 2012, according to UN data, Yemeni per capita income was under $1,330, less than $2 per day. For decades, Yemenis have sought more remunerative work abroad, particularly in the oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. But as the citizenry of those countries grows larger, relative poverty rises there, too, leading the regimes to tighten the screws on foreign labor. Over the course of 2013, Saudi Arabia expelled more than 550,000 Yemeni workers, along with tens of thousands of Somalis and other Africans. Yemen is a major transit point for Africans seeking employment in points north. The mix of desperate migrants, frustrated returnees, opportunistic traffickers and nervous, despotic governments is a human rights nightmare.
This gloomy picture suggests the real problem with Obama administration policy in Yemen, if not the Middle East and the rest of the world. Technocratic, tempted by top-down visions, tepid at best toward bottom-up change, the administration is content with the illusory “stability” created by constant crisis management. Absent structural improvements to the lot of the majority, the search for real stability is akin to a hunt for a unicorn.