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The Debate We Aren't Having About Yemen

I love this quote from Allison Stanger’s One Nation Under Contract:

“The United States has contracted logistical support for indigenous African forces in Somalia, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, and for our own presence (typically as trainers of African forces) in Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana. All of these ventures went forward quickly, with little, if any, public debate or congressional oversight...”

If the title didn’t clue you where this is going, it’s going to Yemen. If I had to list the countries that pose the biggest threat to the US because they harbor terrorists or nuclear weapons, it would be Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan then Nigeria. (An aside, looking back ten years after 9/11, is this the evidence that a defense-first foreign policy doesn’t work? We have more terrorists than we did in 2001.)

With our troops stretched thin in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. government doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to Yemen and Pakistan. It, therefore, launched two wars (micro-wars maybe) against suspected terrorists without an American policy debate and without ever evaluating if the Department of Defense was the right branch to execute our policy in the first place.

Yemen fits into a bigger picture of supposedly successful covert direct action missions against terrorists in countries the U.S. isn’t officially in. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute praised covert and clandestine operations as “the only tool of foreign policy where we can see immediate, positive results”. Max Boot had a similarly positive appraisal in The Wall Street Journal. This narrative of “wildly successful counter-terrorism” operations started about the time General McChrystal was appointed head of Afghanistan operations, because of his time in charge of JSOC.

I bring this up, because it looks like the role of direct action missions in killing terrorists is only increasing. Joint Special Operations Command just built a new headquarters in D.C., with an expanded budget to play with. (from the Associated Press via DoD press releases, no Wikileaks here!). And since 2009, President Obama has ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan.

The United States has transitioned this strategy to Yemen. As reported by Dana Priest--On Violence could be the president of her fan club--we have dramatically increased support to the Yemeni military, with support from both covert intelligence and clandestine drone strikes.

My questions: Does this work? Aren’t drone strikes an easier way to achieve the accidental guerrilla effect without even deploying ground troops? Why does it seem like the CIA is in charge? And where is our Congress to approve, monitor and oversee all this?

I go first to Pakistan. We’ve been bombing Pakistan for a few years now, but we aren’t any closer to stopping terrorism. In fact, if the recent assassination of Salman Taseer is any metric, the country is further radicalizing. Using drone strikes and air power to replace boots on the ground just doesn’t work.

To quote an earlier post, we attack the symptom and promote the growth of the disease. Especially in countries where the US doesn’t have a large troop presence--Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia--direct action missions like drones missile strikes have not broken the enemy’s will.

If anything, anti-US sentiment and the budding insurgencies in those countries have grown their capabilities and expanded their recruiting efforts. Drone strikes, in particular, more often wound innocent civilians. We mistake killing “terrorists” for positive action, when in reality it is a zero-sum game.

Our foreign policy in places like Yemen and Pakistan is now controlled by the CIA and JSOC. Beyond the fact that it unbalances President Obama’s policy of development, diplomacy and defense, it seems uneducated. The CIA doesn’t have the expertise in executing military policy across the spectrum of operations. If anything, CIA covert missions are known for horrendous failures, from the Bay of Pigs through to modern day extraordinary renditions.

Which leads to the worst problem, the fact that Congress doesn’t declare war anymore. Sure our bombs aren’t directed towards the Yemeni government, but Congress still has oversight to determine if we should be dropping bombs in the first place. With their decision comes public debate, something we aren’t having about Yemen, Pakistan or countless other places.

So before we ramp up drone strikes in Yemen further, I hope the President and Congress debate the merits of that course of action, the CIA shouldn’t get to decide.

fourteen comments

I think if anyone thinks we were too hard on Assange, or the case for gov. openness, we’re advocating for it right here.


Not sure what metric you used to determine we have more terrorism now than in 2001. Good article overall but Democrats in Congress didn’t want to study the issue regarding oversight, they simply preferred to blame Bush.


Aye, the congress under Bush defaulted on their proper warfighting responsibilities. And now the congress under Obama would rather debate the difference between rape and rape-rape. Bash half of them all you want, the entire republocrat party is the problem.

So what’s the practical solution now? It seems Americans are as prepared as ever to ignore our martial goings-on… What do you propose be done to re-responsiblize congress? Does anyone here sustain a dialogue with their representatives, and if yes have they found it productive?


My “representative” is Nancy Pelosi, about was wacky as they come.


@ Soturi – One thought is that a parliamentary system would address this better.

I mean, look at the Patriot Act votes. Only (8 of the incoming 26 tea partiers) voted against renewing the Patriot Act. I would think anti-gov advocates would hate the Patriot Act; they don’t.

Not wanting to seem soft on defense, I don’t think either party would step up to the plate to discuss Yemen or the CIA. The solution? Keep discussing it, hope people start caring?


There is a difference, which apparently you miss, between anti-government and anti-big government. Anti-government supporters come from both the Right and the Left whereas anti-big government are from the Right.

People against big government are not contradicting themselves when they are for the Patriot Act as smaller government advocates support a limited role for the Feds including national defense.

A good definition may be found on Wikipedia:

The theory of limited government contrasts, for example, with the idea that government should intervene to promote equality and opportunity through regulation of property and wealth redistribution


I think the old adage “they only hear about our failures,” still applies to the CIA. I think the problem with the predator strikes is with the lack of coordination with covert ops onsite. This means an increase in workload for the intelligence community and cooperation with military forces for joint operations like drone strikes. This means a larger intelligence base and a need to share pertinent information.

It’s also important not to limit the accidental guerrilla principle isn’t limited to collateral casualties, but also from huge social and cultural clashes. This would seem to necessitate increased logistical support on indigenous peoples in suspect countries for “blending” purposes. Intelligence and understanding go hand in hand to prevent the formation of weekend terrorists. But you’re right Michael, decreasing unnecessary fatalities from our bombs is crucial too.


Some stats on national defense, just looking at the Intelligence community. In the words of the Washington Post, the intelligence community has “has grown so large, unwieldy and secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs or how many programs exist within it.”

The government has since released some numbers, according to the Atlantic: 17 agencies. 80 billion dollars. 3,984 different organizations working to fight terrorism.

If that isn’t big government, I don’t know what is.

But you are right. I guess hypothetically, small gov. advocates don’t necessarily support protecting liberty and freedom, just keeping the government small. I meant civil libertarians. Just look at national security letters—powers greatly expanded by the Patriot Act—they terrify me and I consider them unconstitutional. http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/20..


The last time I checked, the United States Constitution does “support protecting liberty and freedom.” Since the anti-big government people are in favor of the United States Constitution, your statement is fallacious. The Big Government crowd, on the other hand, has done more to limit our “freedoms” than under G.W. Bush.


I just disagree with you matt that we don’t hear about the CIA’s successes. We here about them all the time. IF someone stops a terrorist it makes the news. True we didn’t hear about the rendition program, that was mainly because it was doing un-American things to other humans.

Plus go to Borders. If you can’t find a single tell all memoir written by someone in the CIA, then you are right. If you find shelf after shelf, then know that the CIA isn’t quite the “silent soldiers” they pretend to be.


A relevant link on why the size of Defense keeps increasing: http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/1..

To me, defense corporations that depend on gov contracts turning around and lobbying the gov with money paid by the gov is as upsetting as public employee unions doing the same thing.


While you know there is influence peddling going on and people leave the government after having made their contacts so they can cash in working in the private sector, I’m not sure how you can limit a person’s freedom as to where they can work and with whom they may speak. I’m not even sure if a 1 year pause bill was passed into law that it would be found Constitutional.

Graft is simply part of human nature, like war.


Is waste a part of human nature?


I think in a wider context covert action inherently entails a lack of public debate and discourse. We´re supposed to rely on representatives in congress in general to keep oversight on covert actions, they don´t.

Whether it is because of the sheer size, number, and scope of all the different agencies and organizations, or whether it is because there is an internal resistance from the executive branch or those agencies themselves not to be forthcoming with sensitive information (both to other agencies/orgs and to congress) the fact is that oversight is skin deep at best.

I´m sure there is some degree of congressional oversight in certain committees on things like Yemen, and yes a lot of information has come out and become public domain, but being engaged in in such an open ended conflict like the GWOT/OCO´s grants a lot of these agencies a broad amount of power to engage in controversial and ethically questionable practices in the name of protecting the nation.

The emails leaked this week showed HBGary Federal in correspondence with the DNI/FBI, basically asking them if they can circumvent the 4th amendment, engage in domestic intelligence gathering and activities these agencies themselves are prohibited from engaging in, and than sell their results to the FBI. Basically privatizing /outsourcing illegal activity so that the FBI can´t get in trouble for it themselves. Think congress had any oversight over that?