It shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone that Yemen has collapsed (again). A country that has split and been pulled together before, with the youngest and fastest growing population in the region, running low on oil and water, with a personalist government rather than stable institutions, it was on the top of every fragile state experts’ list as the state most likely to fail next.
What is surprising is that U.S. policy ignored all of this and insisted that simply drone-bombing Al-Qaeda terrorists was a policy that could keep Yemen intact and stable. Indeed, when Obama pointed to U.S. policy in Yemen as an example of a “success” and a model for the plans that would roll back the Islamic State (IS), I shivered. Yemen does have value as a lesson — this is what happens when you ignore the basic foundations of social stability (legitimate leadership with stable succession plans; a united elite; institutions to bridge regional and ethnic divisions and assure fairness in political and economic access; a functioning economy with capabilities for providing employment and growth) and succumb to the illusion that precision-bombing or other surgical interventions to remove “dangerous elements” will sustain broader social and political stability.
So the collapse in Yemen should come as no surprise — current theories of revolution lay out the conditions for both social stability and political collapse, and anyone could see that the conditions for collapse were progressing in Yemen and that aerial attacks on Al-Qaeda terrorists would have no effect on them. Those attacks were a side show — like firing an unpleasant band performing on the deck of an ocean liner while the hull is full of holes below waterline and taking on water fast.
What we have now is an area with about 24 million people (10 times more than IS now controls in eastern Syria and western Iraq) that is virtually ungoverned and up for grabs, that is falling into the grips of an all-out civil war between Iran-supported Shi’as and Al-Qaeda/IS aligned Sunnis. That is a war that the West loses no matter who wins.
It is now too late to do much of anything except watch and try to either support any moderate elements if they should emerge as capable of holding any regional or national power, or contain any dangerous jihadist elements if they should do so. Either task will be difficult, and provide yet another costly distraction to efforts to restore peace in Syria and Iraq.
In other words, what has happened in Yemen, although predictable, is about the worst outcome imaginable for U.S. policy. That America ever deluded itself into thinking it was pursuing a course that could lead to success could only be more frightening if that course — using air strikes to deal with the fundamental problems of fragile states — still reflects America’s thinking on how to address the crises of IS and failing states in the Middle East and north Africa.