Advancing U.S. security interests in the Arabian Peninsula depends on Yemen's long-term stability and reducing the terrain where extremists flourish, which will only be gained through the following: 1) a professional, integrated, and well-trained Yemeni military and security apparatus; 2) an accountable national government that is seen as legitimate and credible in the eyes of its people; and 3) the resources and capacity to provide for the basic needs of its citizens and to remove the incentives that drive young men to join extremist networks and tribes to protect them. The joint U.S.-Yemeni drone campaign is undermining at least two out of these three elements. Drone strikes that hit unintended targets and kill innocent civilians -- particularly women and children -- undermine confidence in President Hadi, generate hostility and hatred toward the U.S. and Yemeni government, and create fertile breeding ground for extremist elements to take hold of young Yemenis who lack opportunity, hope, and jobs.
The problem with much of U.S. policy-making is that tactical decisions made to achieve short-term objectives often undermine the long-term strategies that need to be implemented. While targeted drone strikes may take out a nefarious character thought to be plotting against the U.S., what happens in the aftermath, especially if civilians are killed in the midst? How many more new recruits rise up in his place? What about the tribe that seeks to take revenge for the death of one of its members, and then attacks government forces? Is our military engaged in counterterrorism operations because the targets are directly plotting against U.S. citizens, or is this becoming more of a counter-insurgency campaign?
President Obama's second term, bringing with it the establishment of a new national security team, is the appropriate time to ask these tough questions and take a hard look at whether increasing the use of drone strikes is helping or hurting our ability to advance U.S. security interests over the short, medium, and long-term. To his credit, Brennan has called for creating a clear set of standards, criteria, and process to govern counterterrorism actions and decisions about whom to strike with drones. In his current position, he has sought to limit CIA responsibility for targeted killings and has argued that the agency should focus on intelligence activities instead. Now that Brennan will likely be leading this agency, his presence may either expand or limit CIA engagement in lethal action by unmanned drones. Rather than pursuing a drone-based policy because it is the path of least resistance and keeps American soldiers out from harm's way, the administration should re-examine whether this policy is truly effective or whether it might create more problems than it is solves.