Congressional options to advance peace in Yemen
Congress has been actively engaged in U.S. policy toward Yemen since fall 2015, just months after Yemen’s civil war began. This engagement has focused on ensuring that the United States helps minimize civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition, protecting the flow of humanitarian assistance and supporting a diplomatic end to the conflict.
The Biden administration has committed to a Yemen policy broadly aligned with these objectives. In his recent call with the United Nations Special Envoy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that the United States supports a diplomatic resolution to the conflict that will ensure that Yemen is unified, stable and free from foreign influence.
Our recently published RAND report provides insights that may be helpful for Congress as it considers options going forward. In our study, we concluded that an enduring peace required addressing Yemen’s most-immediate needs while working in parallel to develop Yemen’s economic, political and security institutions. In addition to a continued commitment to humanitarian assistance, this approach suggests that Congress could focus its efforts in three ways to help build an enduring peace in Yemen.
- Economic reform and institution building. Alongside humanitarian assistance, commitments to support economic development could do much to address the economic grievances that have undermined stability in Yemen. Even a relatively modestly funded congressional program, such as the once-proposed Palestinian Partnership Fund that would have committed the Department of State to delivering at least $50 million per year for five years to the Palestinians, could be a potent tool for supporting these needed reforms.
- Empower and invest in local-governance structures. Our research demonstrated the importance of political disenfranchisement in the rise of the Houthis and in the political fissures within the internationally-recognized Republic of Yemen government. Yemen has a long history of robust local governance and a U.S. program modeled after the Department of State’s Syria Transition Assistance Response Team (START) program could be a powerful tool for driving bottom-up political institution building.
- Guarantee security of Yemeni citizens. Though the new administration has signaled an unwillingness to commit U.S. forces, security cooperation offers an alternative option and efforts could perhaps focus on border and maritime security to help ensure that Yemen is stable and free of foreign influence. The standard Leahy vetting process will likely face challenges in sorting through the many militias and surrogate forces who may be folded into the Yemeni security forces. Congress could consider statutory provisions to help streamline this process although it would likely want to be careful to avoid sacrificing accountability and due diligence in the process.
These three options for fostering needed institutional reform — which could do much to address the compounding humanitarian, economic, governance and security challenges that shape the conflict today — could be implemented at the national level. Alternatively, given the difficulties facing national reconciliation, these programs could focus first on the southern parts of Yemen currently controlled by the internationally-recognized Republic of Yemen government. Under this phased approach, these reforms could provide a powerful incentive for Houthi participation in a national-level political process.
While the international community, led by the U.N. Special Envoy, remains critical to resolving the conflict and bringing an enduring peace to Yemen, U.S. leadership is essential and has been sorely missed over the last few years. The U.S. Congress has the tools to help shape this effort and could play an important role in ending the conflict and bringing stability to Yemen.
Daniel Egel is an economist and Trevor Johnston is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
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