Limited Options for United States in Yemen

The United States could play a limited role in the nation's future.

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After months of protests and violence triggered by the region's Arab Spring, Yemen's best hope for change came with an explosion on June 3 that injured the nation's President Ali Abdullah Saleh and sent him to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment. However, uncertainty remains over what Saleh's recent departure really means and how it could affect his country's future. [Check out our roundup of cartoons on the Arab Spring uprisings.]

Yemen's state-run newspaper reported Monday that Saleh's condition is "good and improving" as he remains in Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment for injuries he sustained in the recent attack. Officials in his regime insist he'll return, but in the meantime, Saleh's absence could mark a closing window of opportunity for the international community and Yemen's opposition parties to redirect the governance of the nation. "If [Saleh] returns, you're going to see a hardening of positions on all sides," says Ken Gude, a national security expert from the left-leaning Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C. think tank. "We have to take advantage of this period while he's out and the vice president is at least nominally in charge to see if we can't get this transition process going."

Many onlookers guess that despite official government reports, Saleh's injuries may have marked the end to his nearly 33-year rule in Yemen. Still, even out of office, his influence remains, as his family members comprise the country's top ranks and his network of supporters permeates the society. Not to mention, the acting ruler, Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is also on his team and has so far been unwilling to do anything substantial until Saleh returns. This includes signing a deal, brokered by the six regional member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, for Saleh to step down.

Stability in Yemen plays into U.S. national security concerns in a number of ways. For one, the failing Yemeni state could provide a safe haven for terrorist groups like al Qaeda to flourish. The Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009, which was believed to have roots in Yemen, is one event that has drawn attention to the homeland threat posed by terrorist operatives there, for example. U.S. military forces have recently revived airstrike campaigns against militants linked to al Qaeda in the southern part of the country.

A weakened political environment in Yemen could also harm international shipping in the region's seas as it gives rise to piracy. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]

But what the U.S. Congress and President Obama can do in the Yemen is limited given the internal uncertainties about a post-Saleh regime. Many of the major problems, namely economic issues, predate the recent developments in the region. "It would be wrong for the United States to simply view Yemen through the lens of a security threat or a terrorism threat," Gude says. "For us to gain credibility with the Yemeni people, we have to start addressing the problems that are at the top of their list, which is a collapsing economy, a humanitarian situation that is very serious, with a lack of freshwater becoming a real problem and an economy that is going to run out of oil, its main source of revenue, within 10 years."

According to the Congressional Research Service, last fiscal year, the United States gave just over $200 million--less than what it spends daily in Afghanistan--to Yemen, the Middle East region's poorest nation, in direct aid and military support. Based purely on numbers, it would seem that the United States could afford to increase economic support to the country. But according to a congressional aide who works on issues involving the region, even attempts at providing more humanitarian and security assistance would likely fall short due to the on-the-ground political realities in the country. Without clear leadership in Yemen, it would be difficult to say where aid would be directed and how it would affect the country's economic problems.