Friday, June 10, 2011

Yemen: War on autopilot

June 10, 2011 by J.E. Dyer

Clausewitz was right about this: war is the continuation of policy by other means. Waging war is an execution of policy, and what it requires constant supervision from is policy, not rules or plans adhered to by rote.

Ed had a useful piece Thursday on the latest strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen, and asked whether that amounts to inaugurating another “new war” for which President Obama failed to seek Congressional authorization. His conclusion was that it doesn’t, because the strikes on Al Qaeda are a continuation of the global war on terror (GWOT), for which there is ongoing authorization.

I don’t disagree with that conclusion, but I also don’t think it answers the right question. The better question right now is not whether Obama has the authority to conduct strikes in Yemen, but whether continuing the GWOT on its previous basis, despite changing conditions in the Middle East, is a good application of policy.

Yemen is fast sinking into a civil war. President Saleh, injured and evacuated for medical treatment, almost certainly won’t be going back. Al Qaeda in Yemen is no longer merely a rogue element against which the US and a recognized government in Sanaa are making common cause. It is now one of the factions seeking to influence the outcome of Yemen’s internal struggle. Some in the mix of factions – namely, the Shia Houthi tribe – have support from Iran; others from Saudi Arabia.

Now, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for US policy as it pertains to the fate of Yemen. It would take a tremendous effort to pursue a favorable outcome in Yemen without armed intervention – and armed intervention is unthinkable.

Granting that, however: is continuing the air strikes on Al Qaeda, using the same rhetoric and gloating press releases as in 2009-10 – as if nothing has changed in Yemen – really the right thing to do? We can insist that we are not involved in the internal melee there, but we’re attacking one of the factions in it. In this strange situation, we have taken a giant de facto step away from the semi-fiction of “cooperating with the Yemeni government,” because that “government,” whatever is left of it, is in no position to “cooperate” with anyone.

Instead, we are – in effect – entering an all-but-lawless territory at will and opening fire, for no purposes but our own. We assume no responsibility for Yemen’s internal problem, while nevertheless using force that will affect its outcome on Yemeni territory. Aside from other considerations, this approach lacks any assumption of moral or political leadership on the part of the United States. “Who cares what happens to Yemen, as long as we can kill Al Qaeda operatives?” is a not-unreasonable reading of the policy effectively at work here.

The narrow cynicism of that may resonate with some Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum. But it is the opposite of global leadership. It tacitly posits the United States as a nation wholly on the defensive, without vision, moral confidence, or compunction, reduced to using the territory of others for a sniper perch. That is not the United States we have been for the last 70 years – but the “GWOT on autopilot” is making it seem like that’s the nation we are becoming.

I faulted George W. Bush for not sufficiently engaging on the moral and political side of counter-jihadism. But with the Obama administration, the bottom has simply fallen out in that regard. However imperfectly, Bush did make an effort to bolster the civic position of average citizens and potential reformers in the Muslim world. He used stand-off attacks on jihadist cadre far less than Obama does, and “hearts and minds” engagement substantially more.

Obama has reverted to a lowest-common-denominator mode of execution favoring drone strikes. Perhaps he thinks military force “works” to produce outcomes the way a piston fires, by a morally neutral set of physical rules. However he sees it, his understanding doesn’t seem to extend to this: that when you wade into someone else’s civil war and start shooting, you are sending a big signal of some kind. Sound policy acknowledges when a condition of that magnitude has changed, and checks to see if its assumptions and goals should be revised.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,” Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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