Why we need to keep our ambassador in Yemen

Yemen’s increasing tumult recently led two members of Congress to call for the withdrawal of U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller.  We appreciate the concern for Matt Tueller, someone we all know and esteem.  Yet we disagree both that the decision should be made solely on the basis of danger and that it should be made primarily in Washington.

No group could take security more seriously than we do.  Each of us in our own diplomatic service has been shot at, rocketed, and mortared.  One survived a bombing and another missed a bomb by minutes.  We have all buried colleagues who were less lucky than we.  We know that even the best reasoned security decisions can be wrong.  And yet we disagree. 

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Yemen exemplifies why American diplomats need to take personal risks in our national interest.  Yemen teeters on the edge of civil war.  The fight there with Al-Qaeda is far from successful but is not yet lost.  At this critical time engagement and judgment on the ground are essential to try to stabilize the situation before Yemen slides into such complete chaos that outsiders are helpless to influence the situation. 

The so-called Houthis (a name the group doesn’t use) who have seized power in Yemen’s capital have Iranian friends but the relationship is unclear and we should not jump to facile assumptions of a close Iranian alliance.  We need understanding of what the Houthis seek, whether we share interests and whether our financial and military assistance can help leverage political stabilization; the kind of judgments that can only be made on the ground in an evolving situation.

The Saudis have strong interests in Yemen and strong influence with some tribes. We should try to cooperate with the Saudis because of their strong influences, our broad relationship with them and the depth of their interest.  But we cannot rely on their or anyone else’s analysis.  Further we need to be aware of long developed Saudi views that sometimes prejudice their recommendations. In short, only if we are making our own analysis on the ground can we even begin to have a dialogue of equals with the Saudis.

We still provide critical support to the political transition despite the turmoil.  This aid needs close coordination with the UN mediator who is taking his own risks.

We are maintaining a military involvement in Yemen, both working with some Yemeni forces and periodically striking al-Qaeda elements.   At this politically sensitive time of interaction between multiple tribal and political groups in Yemen we must have up to the minute judgment on whether a given strike will influence or, potentially, ruin political negotiations to stabilize the country.  There is no one-size fits all judgment.  The call cannot be made from a distance or by relying only on technical intelligence because it is fundamentally a matter of political calculation.

The interaction with key players in Yemen can only be maintained by an ambassador.  Lower ranking officials, no matter how smart or how good their Arabic—Ambassador Tueller’s is among the best in the Foreign Service—cannot interact at the same senior levels as can the Ambassador.  For dealing with allies and local parties, coordinating our military and political instruments of influence, and providing Washington with judgments unattainable in any other way we need our ambassador on the ground as long as he can possibly function.

The issue must not be only one of risk but of whether the risks can be mitigated through intelligence and security precautions.  Mitigation does not mean one is secure but it lowers the level of risk and can include significant reduction of embassy personnel.  But the ambassador should be the last, not the first, out.

The time may come when Ambassador Tueller has to leave not withstanding all of the above.  The risks may become so high that they cannot be mitigated.  Or the situation may be so chaotic that he cannot function and we are painfully aware that civilian lives as well as those of possible military rescue elements are at stake in any such situation. 

But even then the decision to evacuate, in Yemen as in cases that will arise in the future, should be driven by those directly responsible beginning and strongly influenced by the ambassador on the ground in consultation with the embassy security advisor.  The ambassador will have to calmly weigh risk against mission utility.  .

We have each been there and we know how difficult this is, how tempting it may be to stay just a little too long, or, on the other hand, and how hard it can be to resist Washington’s concerns    But the fact remains that no one is better placed to evaluate the local scene and make the decision than the Ambassador and no one else will pay the same price if the decision is wrong.  Washington should do everything it can to secure the embassy.  But it must understand the supreme value of keeping a highly qualified ambassador in Yemen if at all possible.

Crocker was ambassador to Kuwait, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan.  Ford was ambassador to Algeria and Syria.  Jeffrey was ambassador to Albania, Turkey and Iraq and deputy National Security Advisor. Neumann was ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan.

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