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Ex-Ambassador: Rebels In Yemen Exploited A Vacuum


A Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes on Yemen for the third night in a row. The country's in the grip of a crisis that threatens to turn into civil war, and President Hadi has fled the country. Iranian-backed rebels known as Houthis control the capital of Sanaa. Saudi Arabia began military assaults against them earlier this week while a regional coalition that includes Egypt promises further intervention. And this raises the possibility of a widening war in a country that not so long ago was considered a kind of model success for U.S. counterterrorism strategies. Barbara Bodine was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, and she says the Houthis became so powerful because they were able to step into a vacuum.

BARBARA BODINE: The political transition from 2011 that had looked successful and was even talked about as a model for the rest of the region had completely stalled out. And there was no sense of either a growing political inclusion nor was there any real change going on in terms of economics and employment.

SIMON: And what's your analysis of why the Saudis have jumped in, and it seems, with both feet? What's their stake?

BODINE: The Saudis look at Yemen through two prisms. One, they look at it as a Saudi domestic security issue, and two, they certainly look at almost everything in the region through the prism of what Iran is up to. With the Houthi advance just this week, they saw the last remnants of the legitimate government about to collapse. And their concern from their view is that this is another Iranian, another Shia takeover. It's a bit of an odd way of looking at the situation. First of all, the government in Yemen has always been Zaydi, which is the Yemeni version of Shia. And so this is not a Sunni government that is now being replaced by Shia. And I think the Saudis have also overestimated what the Iranian role in all of this is.

SIMON: Of course, we refer to the Houthis as Iranian-backed. What's the affinity there? What's Iran's interest?

BODINE: The Iranian involvement is very new. Exactly how strong it is in terms of material is unclear. And I think the Iranian interest in this is the Saudis, as we know, are very much involved in trying to unseat Assad, who is extraordinarily important to Iran. And Iran coming in and providing support to follow Shia is a way of distracting the Saudis. And in that sense, the Iranians have been terribly successful because we have reports of a 150,000 Saudi troops on the border, a large number of aircraft and ships and everything being pulled into Yemen. Everything that's being pulled into Yemen is not being focused on Syria or, for that matter, ISIL. So as an Iranian gambit, to pull the Saudi's away from what they consider more important, it was a very good gambit. Their fundamental deep interest in Yemen is marginal.

SIMON: Of course, you were the U.S. ambassador when the Cole was attacked in Yemen in 2000. The recent attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris came from al-Qaida in Yemen. What are the implications for the United States if there's a government in Yemen that is not aligned with U.S. counterterrorism efforts?

BODINE: There's no question that that's going to be devastating to our ability to operate against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. An irony of all of this, though, is that one of the Houthi's prime targets is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Qaida knows this. And whether or not ISIS was behind the attack on the mosque over the weekend, it really had all the hallmarks of al-Qaida. The best for al-Qaida is - to the extent that everyone is focused on the Houthi and everyone else - al-Qaida has a vacuum. We are now out. Our ability to do drones is going to be at least degraded by not having anyone on the ground. So that everyone's going to be way too busy to pay much attention to them, and they're going to be able to operate with greater impunity.

SIMON: Ambassador Bodine, if you were advising the president of the United States, and for all I know you have this week...

BODINE: (Laughter).

SIMON: And that's up to you, what would you say?

BODINE: We really need to think about Yemen more holistically. We have been focusing on a short-term, localized counterterrorism problem without doing anything to significantly help build the state and help build the society. There is no U.S. military solution to this. I'm not at all convinced that there is a Saudi military solution to this. It's going to be a political solution, and then we are going to have to put the same amount of time, attention, resources into helping Yemen succeed as we put in to trying to defeat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

SIMON: Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, thank you so much for being with us.

BODINE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.