January 20, 2015

The Yemen Crisis: Some Ground Truths [January 2010]

Photo: U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, May 2014. Source: AFP.
Photo: Houthi fighters outside the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, January 2015. Source: AP.

Title: The Yemen Crisis: Some Ground Truths. Source: UChannel. Date Published: February 1, 2010. Description:
Ambassador Barbara Bodine, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen and Diplomat-in-Residence at the Woodrow Wilson School, and Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen  
Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
"On the first point, on intelligence on the ground, I've made some very sharp and poignant criticisms of U.S. diplomacy in the country based on my interactions as well as observations, some of which are a bit painful because I know that many of the people working at the embassy are very smart, very talented, and very driven people. But there are, I think, repercussions for decisions that the United States tends to make, and there are very real security risks in Yemen. One of the repercussions of making it a non-accompanying post where individuals are only able to bring their spouses if their spouse can find work in the embassy and only able to bring independents of particular ages is that you, in a sense, means that you get younger and younger diplomats. You get more and more inexperienced people.

And then this shift, I think Ambassador Bodine can speak to this much more eloquently and articulately than I can, but this idea of sort of militarization of U.S. policy within Yemen. And this idea that you have this fortified compound that the embassy is, and then you have a fortified compound that most most of the diplomats live, out in Hada, and there's this sort of frantic and frenzy drive back and forth between the two. Not only do you get a misleading and I think clouded picture of what Sana'a is like, but you have really no understanding of what the rest of the country is like. The individuals that you're talking to, the tribal sheikhs, or whoever, that you're speaking with, they're coming into town, you're not meeting them on their territory.  . . I'm a little worried that there's a sort of very narrow slice of life that's being dissected by the U.S. in Yemen that can give very distorting images if you project that out onto what the rest of the country looks like." - Gregory Johnsen [1:06:00 - 1:08:26].

"I would most regrettably have to agree. I was out in Yemen last year, and I was appalled at how much the embassy has become this fortress. Yes, there are security issues there. Nobody is doubting that or anything else. But it is not fundamentally a hostile environment, and I think this is a broader problem with the U.S. government, we've slid into this idea of risk avoidance as opposed to risk management. Forgetting that, with some, to borrow another military phrase, with some situational awareness, there's a great deal that you can do. And I do think that we have an embassy that, when I was there, I was appalled at how narrow their range of contacts were. It has become very militarized. Our embassy, you walk around and there's a whole lot of guys with short haircuts and thick necks. And I can tell you that's not the profile of a diplomat.

We talked earlier about how much these are relationships societies. And, to the extent that we have young people or we have people on rapid rotations, even a year, we are losing our ability to understand, which is something you've all understood even before today. It's an enormously complex, highly unique, very idiosyncratic country. We can do this right, but we can do this thing very, very wrong. We do need the human intelligence, if we're going to do this, as well. You can't do this all by signals intelligence. You end up sending cruise missiles into the sand. And, so, if you're going to do good human intelligence or if you're going to do good diplomacy or if you're going to do smart development, we have to have people on the ground, in the villages, driving around, not in armoured convoys. When I used to go out, I've always been of the mind that the lower my profile the safer I was. That if I got, you know, all this garbage, you're just sort of doing this 'important person here' 'shoot here.' If you're out in just an armoured land cruiser you're probably a whole lot safer." - Ambassador Barbara Bodine [1:08:29 - 1:11:08].

Title: Shots fired at U.S. embassy vehicle in Yemen. Source: CNN. Date Published: January 20, 2015.