Lieberman: Even Wronger On Yemen

Joe LiebermanSen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) has been taking heat for his comments on Fox News yesterday about how we need to “act preemptively” against extremist networks in Yemen. While it’s almost always safe to assume that Lieberman, like his comrade-in-tinny-bravado Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), is in favor of new wars, in this case I think treating Lieberman’s comments as advocating a preemptive U.S. invasion of Yemen actually obscures how wrong Lieberman really is. Here’s the offending passage:

LIEBERMAN: Yemen now becomes one of the centers of that fight [against Islamic extremism]. I was in Yemen in August. And we have a growing presence there, and we have to, of Special Operations, Green Berets, intelligence. We’re working well with the government of President Saleh there.

I leave you with this thought that somebody in our government said to me in the Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.

Iraq, Afghanistan… Yemen. That’s a really careless formulation, but I think it’s fairly clear that he’s not calling for an invasion of Yemen, but something more along the lines of what we’ve got going in Pakistan. But, as Gregg Carlstrom writes, that’s a huge problem:

The U.S. spent most of this decade propping up the Musharraf government: He received a lot of military aid, a lesser amount of civilian aid, and a great deal of support on the world stage. And it was a totally counterproductive strategy: Pakistan is more unstable than ever, and America’s public image is tarnished, perhaps irreparably, in the eyes of a whole generation of Pakistanis.

Supporting the Saleh government will produce the same outcome. The U.S. has very little leverage over Saleh; it cannot impel him to approve political reforms and focus on economic development. So Yemen’s government will go on being violent and oppressive, and the U.S. — in exchange for a massive aid package — will get a limited amount of counterterrorism assistance.

This is the kind of crudely transactional international relations that infuriates people in the Muslim world. And it’s ultimately counterproductive, because it leaves in place the root causes that allow countries to become “breeding grounds” for terrorism.

As in Pakistan, last week’s U.S.-assisted air strikes in Yemen killed a number of civilians (while failing to kill their main target), which in turn fuels hatred of the government, and of the government’s U.S. sponsor, and resulting in sympathy, if not outright support, for extremists and insurgents. These bad effects will fast outweigh and overshadow any of the good effects of U.S. aid, especially if that aid is not accompanied by more responsible, less corrupt and oppressive governance.

It’s also very much worth noting that the ranks of Yemen’s Islamic extremist insurgency have been fed by fighters returning from Iraq, bringing with them tactics and experience gained in one of the previous wars that Joe Lieberman supported. Unfortunately, the nature of our national security debate is such that militaristic voices like Lieberman’s will always be treated as “serious,” even when the problems they’re proposing to solve have only been made worse by their previous harebrained militarism.