Center for Strategic Communication

This afternoon, a sizable Washington audience turned out to
watch White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talk about American
policy toward Yemen. Imagine that — a large Washington audience turning out in
the dead of summer to hear about Yemen! And even better, Brennan began by
responding directly to the criticisms of U.S. policy toward Yemen expressed in
a recent
Atlantic Council-POMED letter to President Obama
, which called for moving "beyond
the narrow lens of counterterrorism." (I
made similar criticisms in this space in January

Brennan’s main goal was to push back against these
criticisms. It is simply wrong, he argued, to claim that the U.S. views Yemen
only from a security and counter-terrorism lens. He laid out the
administration’s "comprehensive" strategy for Yemen, including support for the
political transition, humanitarian aid and economic development, and
institutional reforms. He effusively praised President Hadi and his efforts at
institutional reform and political transition, and he emphasized several times
that more
than half of the increased U.S. aid
to Yemen went to the political
transition and economic development, not to counterterrorism. Of course at the
end he came to AQAP and mounted a spirited defense of drone strikes as ethical,
legal, and effective, but the speech was structured to show that these efforts
came within a broader political and developmental context. (He also,
thankfully, didn’t waste our time blaming Iran for Yemen’s problems). [[BREAK]]

Now, many would take issue with his presentation of American
priorities and actions. I wanted to ask questions about the effectiveness of Hadi’s
military reforms, and the feelings of exclusion among many activists and
political trends despite the official political dialogue. I don’t think many in
the room were convinced by the claims about drone strikes, whether on civilian
casualties, anti-Americanism, or legality. But I do think that it’s an
unambiguously good thing that Brennan felt the need and the desire to come out
and publicly articulate the kind of comprehensive political strategy for Yemen for
which many of us have long called. That comprehensive policy might not really
be there yet, but the speech was an important point of entry for all future
debate about Yemen and I for one found it a positive development to have these
concerns addressed so directly.

That’s the good. The bad? After Brennan’s speech about Yemen,
moderator Margaret Warner asked only a few desultory questions about Yemen. She
then immediately shifted to a series of questions about Syria, which while
interesting had nothing to do with Yemen. And then, to an even longer series of
questions about cyber-security, neither interesting nor to do with Yemen. And
then the controversy over leaks … ditto. The audience started strong, with
several questions about Yemen and about drones. But soon enough, attention
wandered to Nigeria, to al Qaeda, back to cyber-security, and at its lowest
point to an utterly moronic question about the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged
penetration of the U.S. government. I worried that the Yemeni Twitterati were
going to spontaneously combust from accumulated outrage. Even in an event about
Yemen, John Brennan could barely buy a question about Yemen from his easily
distractible Washington audience. C’mon, DC!