Yemen is a poor, highly rural nation with staggering population growth, dwindling oil production, and little infrastructure, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told an audience at Dodds Auditorium Jan. 13. “It is also a 20-year-old fragile, emerging, but real democracy,” she added, noting that Yemen has repeated elections, political parties, and a relatively free press.
Bodine, a diplomat-in-residence at the Woodrow Wilson School, joined Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies and former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, to debunk some of the popular perceptions of Yemen and discuss economic assistance and counterterrorism in the country that grabbed international headlines for its ties to the man who attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound airplane on Christmas Day.
Bodine, who spent much of her diplomatic career in Yemen, said that improving education and health care could go a long way toward improving the country’s stability. The United States’ focus is on counterterrorism, but Bodine urged economic and civilian aid as well.
“We have talked about $120 million in counterterrorism funding, and there are 100 to 300 al-Qaida,” she said. “It comes out to a couple hundred thousand dollars per guy. Our economic assistance is about $40 million, for 25 million Yemenis. That’s about $1.60 a Yemeni. That’s not a good balance.”
Johnsen, an expert on al-Qaida in Yemen, said that while U.S. drone strikes in the eastern part of the country might have been able to disrupt terrorists in 2002, al-Qaida’s growth has made that “magic missile” approach impractical today.
Al-Qaida, Johnsen said, has been “constructing a narrative that really has a great deal of resonance in Yemen,” through its public stances on everything from Israel and Palestine to local corruption.
“The U.S. and Yemeni governments are, whether they realize it or not, involved in a propaganda war against al-Qaida in Yemen,” Johnsen said. “And they’re losing, and losing quite badly.”