Stay Out of Yemen!

by , February 05, 2010

Statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing: “Yemen on the Brink: Implications for U.S. Policy” February 3, 2010

Mr. Chairman, I am extremely concerned over current US policy toward Yemen, which I believe will backfire and leave the United States less safe and much poorer. Increasing US involvement in Yemen may be sold as a fight against terrorism, but in fact it is more about expanding US government control and influence over this strategically-placed nation at the gateway to Asia.

The current administration, according to today’s testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, has dramatically increased foreign aid to Yemen, from $17 million in FY 2008 to $40 million in FY 2009, to $67 million for FY 2010, to, according to the president’s recent budget sent to Congress, $106 million for FY 2011. That represents an incredible six-fold increase in US aid to Yemen over just four years, at a time when the US economy continues to falter.

When I look at the US assistance plan for Yemen I see that it is primarily focused on nation-building. That is the failed idea that if the United States sends enough money to a foreign government, with which that government purchases US-manufactured weapons and hires US-based consultants and non-governmental organizations, that country will achieve a strong economy and political stability and in gratitude will become eternally friendly to the US and US interests. I have yet to see a single successful example of this strategy.

According to Assistant Secretary Feltman’s statement, “Priorities for U.S. assistance include political and fiscal reforms and meaningful attention to legitimate internal grievances; better governance through decentralization, reduced corruption and civil service reform; human rights protections; jobs-related training; economic diversification to generate employment and enhance livelihoods, and strengthened natural resource management.” How can we believe that the US government can achieve abroad what we know it cannot effectively achieve at home? We are going to spend millions of dollars to help create jobs in Yemen as we continue to shed jobs in the United States?

Yemen is a country mired in civil conflict. The Shi’ites in the north, who make up a significant percentage of the country’s total population and a majority in their region, have been fighting against what they see as the discriminatory policies of the Sunni-based government in the capital, Sana’a, for years. Yemenis in the south, who up until 1990 were a separate country, likewise oppose the central government and threaten to escalate this opposition. Added into this mix are elements of what are called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), some of whom are left over from the US-supported fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and others that have been radicalized by their exposure to Wahhabi extremism in US-allied Saudi Arabia. Still others in AQAP are veterans of the insurgency against US occupation of Iraq. We cannot forget either those Yemenis who were held for years by the United States without charges at Guantánamo Bay. How many of those were innocent of terrorist actions or intent but became radicalized under such conditions?

Saudi Arabia’s concern over the Shi’ite unrest in north Yemen has led to unsubstantiated claims of Iranian involvement in an attempt to draw the US into a regional problem that has nothing to do with the United States. Saudi Arabia has struggled with unrest among its own Shi’ite population and is determined to prevent any spill-over. There are some here in the US who repeat false claims of Iranian involvement in the hope of expanding the US military presence in the area. Others in the United States irresponsibly call for a US preemptive war in Yemen. We should be clear on this: expanded US involvement in Yemen plays into the hands of bin Laden and his organization as has been made clear on many occasions. Luring the United States into a conflict in Yemen by falsely advertising it as part of a war on terror will certainly radicalize the Yemeni population against the United States. It will weaken our over-extended military and it will further destroy our economy.

Similarly, the US-backed central government in Sana’a stands to gain by claiming its internal problems are part of a global crisis that requires US intervention. The central Yemeni government has much to gain by making its battles and its problems our battles and our problems. But that gain will come at the expense of US soldiers, US security, and the American economy. I wonder how long it will be before the US establishes a permanent base on the strategic territory of Yemen?

I hope, as we begin to debate the foreign affairs budget for next year, that we may yet change course from that of the last administration, where the failed policies of interventionism, militarism, and nation-building have left the United States in a diminished position in the world.

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