The Trouble With Unconditionality

Yemen has a lot of problems. It would be nice, for a variety of reasons, to see those problems ameliorated. The United States could, in principle, play a role in assisting the amelioration of many of those problems. The fiscal cost of providing assistance is not likely to be beyond the capacity of the world’s richest country. Which is to say that I’m in agreement with many of the analytic points the Washington Post makes in its editorial on Yemen. But the tone and overall attitude they bring to bear couldn’t be more wrong. The Post labels any doubts about the feasibility of the mission “defeatist.” They dismiss practical objections with a vague and plainly irrelevant reference to the success of the Marshall Plan. They wave off concerns about cost-benefit analysis with an irrelevant comparison to defense spending as a percent of GDP during the Cold War era. The issue of why a health care program must be deficit-neutral but a hazily defined counterinsurgency mission in Yemen mustn’t isn’t even raised.

But most of all, the characterization of the strategic issues at the end is a disaster:

There is much that the United States and its Arab and European allies could do in Yemen. Little has been done to prepare the country for a future in which its supplies of both oil and water may disappear. Outside mediation could ease the government’s war against Houthi rebels in the north and an increasingly violent conflict with political opponents in the south. Independent media and civil society groups seeking to broaden political freedoms could be supported and shielded. Government forces could be trained not just in counterterrorism operations but in the broader counterinsurgency mission, centered on protecting the population, that has become the model for Iraq and Afghanistan. All this could be costly and take time. But as in Afghanistan, the alternative is to pursue a policy that won’t defeat al-Qaeda.

There’s a lot of conditional claims there. And if the conditional “coulds” are taken in the right spirit, this is absolutely true. But it’s all undermined by the ponderous claim that anything less than an all-in approach to Yemen amounts to a surrender to al-Qaeda.

Consider: Outside mediation really could help ease Yemen’s civil conflicts. But for that to happen, political actors need to believe that we’ll stop helping them if they act in a totally unreasonable manner.

Similarly, Independent media and civil society groups seeking to broaden political freedoms really could be supported and shielded. But there’s a tension between trying to improve a state’s internal security forces and trying to create more space for independent media and civil society groups. It might be possible to navigate the tension, but then again it might not. And, again, it’s more likely to work if the government thinks we will stop helping them if they act in an inhumane and unreasonable manner.

One can go on down the list like this. Again, I hesitate to say too much about the specific situation in Yemen, since like all our country’s leading pundits my base of knowledge about Yemen, though growing, is tiny. But the general logic of the situation is one that recurs time and again with countries around the world. Undertaking missions of the type that the military terms Foreign Internal Defense is something that there’s a pretty broad range of possibilities for. But it inherently requires a certain cooperative spirit from the putative foreign ally. And there’s just no way to judge in advance whether or not something is going to work out. Under the circumstances the worst thing you can do is thunder in with a lot of chest-pounding and definitive declarations of absolute commitment. You need to try to do what you can, and pair that with a determination to re-evaluate and recalibrate going forward based on the evolving situation.