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Case In Context: Yemen And The (Lack Of) U.S. “Whole Of Government” Approach

in Program

The concept of “whole of government” is the latest in a long Washington legacy of hip slang that no one seems to fully understand but that everyone wholeheartedly embraces. Regrettably, beyond the flowery statements of government officials and the shiny reports of think tanks, identifying tangible evidence of this ostensibly new approach to American foreign policy is often more challenging than it should be. The most recent evidence of this disjuncture comes as part of the Pentagon’s six year plan to send $1.2 billion in military equipment and training to combat Al Qaeda in Yemen.

This security assistance package has critics calling for a more holistic approach, one that focuses on long-term economic development and stability in Yemen and across the wider Middle East. Lost in this debate is the recognition that the balance between security and development is not a zero sum game. Instead, both interests can be advanced simultaneously, tangibly, and collaboratively. So why is breaking down the stovepipes so challenging? The security/development divide is rooted in a longstanding conundrum: Although most concur that long-term security is not possible without development, and that sustainable development is unachievable in the absence of security, deep structural divisions continue as a result of how we have organized ourselves to manage foreign policy, as well as in our enduring penchant to favor quick technology fixes over long term institution building. In the United States, Congressional mandates and funding are silohed both functionally and geographically. Executive agencies are held to those discrete mandates and given little incentive to look across stovepipes. Moreover, as the debate over how to combat terrorism in Yemen indicates, prevailing strategies are more often tilted heavily in favor of military expenditure in part because its timeline is more politically palatable. One need not look beyond worldwide funding for security and development for evidence: wealthy countries spent $120 billion on development assistance—only 8 percent of the $1.5 trillion allocated to security. Last (fiscal) year, the U.S. government provided Yemen with three times as much security assistance as it will development aid. To be sure, Yemen is suffering from a range of transnational security challenges, including cross-border skirmishes and various forms of trafficking. But the nation is also undergoing a critical shortage of potable water—a top priority threat for the government and for daily life in that country. As a result, the US often appears to be advancing its own security agenda without granting sufficient consideration to the development priorities of Yemen—a strategy destined for long term failure.

The challenge for security-focused policymakers thus is to provide assistance to Yemen that simultaneously advances Western terrorism and proliferation agendas while still addressing regional development aspirations. It’s not an impossible balance to achieve. In Yemen, providing assistance to improve border and export controls also enhances efficiencies at transit hubs and facilitates trade expansion, economic development, and national competitiveness within the global supply chain. Moreover, improved border controls, coupled with enhanced police capacity, would help prevent the cross border movement of terrorists and insurgents, which would promote greater stability in Yemen and the region as a whole. In short, this “dual-use” approach addresses national and regional development and security priorities simultaneously. If it all sounds theoretical, consider that this dual-use model has already been successfully applied to fighting drug trafficking and criminal gangs in Central America and to diversifying the tourism based-economies of the Caribbean—neither region previously being known for their enduring commitments to the global nonproliferation agenda.

The notion of whole of government is not flawed. The key to security and sustainable development and stability in the 21st century is to identify opportunities to bridge the security/development divide. What is flawed has been our pursuit of tangible instances of its execution. The U.S. government has the opportunity with this major investment in Yemen to prove that this model can be applied successfully. The solution to that country’s security challenges lies not in spending more money, but in spending it more wisely.

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