Barbara K. Bodine, distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, discusses prospects for peace in Yemen, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
As a reminder, you may dial *1 to enter the questioning queue at any time during today’s discussion.
We’re delighted to have Barbara Bodine with us to talk about the situation in Yemen. Ambassador Barbara Bodine is distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
She previously spent over thirty years in the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily working on Arabian Peninsula and greater Persian Gulf issues, specifically U.S. bilateral and regional policy, strategic security issues, counterterrorism, and governance and reform.
She served as ambassador to the Republic of Yemen from 1997 to 2001, where she oversaw enhanced support for democratization and increased security and counterterrorism cooperation. She also served in Kuwait as deputy chief of mission during the Iraqi invasion and occupation of 1990 to 1991, and in Iraq in 2003 as a senior State Department official there.
So Ambassador Bodine, thank you very much for being with us today. We really appreciate it.
Yemen has obviously had grave humanitarian consequences. Could you update us on what is happening there, the roots of the conflict? And is there any U.S. role? Are there any prospects for peace? This is probably a very easy question to answer yes or no to.
BODINE: Thank you very much.
And thank you all who are on this call for your interest in this subject. And I look forward to your questions and your comments.
To answer the question “Are there prospects for peace?” I think we all have to hope and continue to work on the presumption that there is a prospect for peace. Whether or not it is imminent is, I think, the question.
I’ll do some quick setup on what this conflict is and is not and what the costs so far have been. Yemen is not a well-known country to most Americans. I was once asked to talk on a conference about the forgotten war, and I answered that it was not a forgotten war because no one knew anything about it. It was an unknown war.
As a start, Yemen is about the size of Texas and it has a population roughly that of California, so about thirty million people, and an extraordinarily young population, one of the youngest populations in the world.
Even though it sits on the Arabian Peninsula, it has virtually no oil and no natural gas. And again, keeping in mind that it’s the size of Texas, it has no rivers and no lakes. It has no constant surface-level fresh water. It has been in the bottom twenty poorest countries in the world probably forever, despite its much-storied history.
So even before this conflict, it was food-insecure, fuel-insecure, medicine-and-health-insecure, and dependent on foreign assistance. It was also a country that was struggling towards a democratic governance of a very unique Yemeni style and was working assiduously, if not quickly, towards a better future for its people. But it had considerable challenges.
It got swept up in the Arab Spring. The president then had been in power for thirty-two years. It actually went through a peaceful transition to a new government, but for a host of reasons that are way too obscure. In 2014, it did start to slide into civil war. There had been a stagnation in the political progress. The economy was totally stalled. And the frustration finally bubbled over into what would be a civil war.
What makes the Yemen war qualitatively different is that, at the end of March of 2015, the Saudis, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and a few other states intervened. And what they did is they internationalized what would have been a civil war, in any event. And that war has continued for five years, with the Saudis and the Emiratis bringing the most sophisticated militaries in the region to bear on this country.
The results have been militarily it is essentially a stalemate. The lines are as they were in 2015; some movement back and forth, but not major. The Emiratis control the coastline. The Saudis control the air. And the Houthis, who are the opposition, the insurgents, control the heartland of the country and most of the population.
I think it has turned into one of the most grotesque humanitarian catastrophes in the world. It is a famine. Well over twenty million people are severely food-insecure. Medicine cannot get in. Fuel cannot get in. And the U.N. estimates that if the casualties continue at their current rate, by the end of 2019 a quarter-million Yemenis will have died. A steep percent of those will be children under the age of five, and probably another 10 or 20 percent will be under the age of twelve.
Even those who are able to survive the famine and the largest cholera outbreak in the world in decades have been set back in terms of their human development and their mental development. Other estimates put the destruction of infrastructure and the destruction of the economy setting Yemen back probably thirty years. And it wasn’t at a very high level to begin with.
What are they fighting about? It is essentially a political battle—who is going to control Yemen. It is not a secessionist fight. The Houthis are not trying to set up a separate state. The Saudis and the Emiratis are trying to determine who the central government will be. And it is not, despite how it is sometimes characterized in our media, a sectarian fight. It is not a Sunni-Shia fight. It is a Saudi-Iranian proxy fight, but in the political sense as opposed to a theologic sense.
So who are the Houthis? The Houthis are a non-kinship group. That means they are a bunch of guys who are not really related to each other, who have banded together in order to change the government. They’re not an ethnic group. They’re not a religious group. They’re not a linguistic group. They are Yemenis from the north. And they are up against the legal government of Yemen, the one that took over after the Arab Spring. It is legally the legitimate government of Yemen, but it doesn’t have a lot of legitimacy on the ground.
And so what you have are the Houthis, with some support from Iran, although it is very ambiguous as to exactly how much and how critical it is, on one side, and the remnants of the legitimate government, backed by the Saudis and the Emiratis and the United States, Britain, France, and a few others, on the other side, and thirty million Yemeni civilians caught in the middle.
Prospects for peace—one basic problem is that both the Saudis and the Houthis, as they are generally shorthanded too, do not see why they need to truly seriously negotiate. And they each believe that they can outlast and outwait the other. And so, as I said, there’s a military standoff. Efforts at peace talks have been marginal at best. Neither side sees a reason to significantly compromise. And it is just grinding and grinding onward.
The ultimate resolution will probably still be a unified Yemen, regional differences, some sort of hub-and-spoke governing structure. The Houthis will have to be part of any political settlement, but exactly what and exactly how, I don’t think anybody knows.
A couple of—one element of this war that a lot of people are starting to look at in terms of the future of Yemen are the Emiratis. This is generally referred to as the Saudi-led coalition, and it is. But the major players on the groundare the Emiratis, who have taken control of most of the two-thousand-mile coastline.
This seems to be part of a bigger agenda that the Emiratis have to control, stabilize, influence sea travel and sea lanes in the region. Yemen does sit astride the Bab el-Mandab, which is the other end of the Red Sea from the Suez Canal. So they seem to have a slightly different agenda.
The U.S. role in all of this, I think, is one of high controversy. We have supported the Saudi-led coalition. We have supported the Hadi government, the legitimate government. We have been supplying literally billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment. And up until fairly recently, we were providing the refueling for the Saudi and Emirati air force—air campaign. And we are part of the naval blockade of the Port of Hodeidah.
The current administration, with its much tougher stance on Iran and its much closer relationship with Riyadh and Mohammad bin Salman, has been much more supportive of the coalition and has shown really no interest in being involved in the peace process.
So how long this will be able to go on, how long the Yemeni people will be able to withstand the humanitarian crisis? I honestly don’t know. But that’s the situation in Yemen in a nutshell. And I think I’ll stop there and try to address your questions and your concerns.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much for that sobering overview.
Let’s open up to the group for questions and comments.
OPERATOR: Thank you. the first question will come from Salam Al-Marayati with Muslim Public Affairs Council. Please go ahead with your question.
AL-MARAYATI: Yes. Thank you very much for this very—as Irina said, very sobering but very important and comprehensive overview of this crisis in Yemen.
I agree with the point that we are not there yet in terms of a sectarian conflict in Yemen, that it is more of a proxy war. But that’s usually how most sectarian conflicts start. They start as political, and then the theological strains or, you know, layers start unfolding, and it becomes a sectarian conflict. And I think with more talk about war against Iran, then Yemen will eventually become part of that regional sectarian conflict.
I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.
BODINE: Yeah. I agree with you. That’s a very good point. There are already sectarian themes and sectarian narratives playing an increasing role in this conflict. And as a backfill, the Yemenis are divided maybe fifty-fifty Zaidi-Shafi’i, which is two sub-schools of Sunni-Shia, who are actually very close to each other.
One of the hallmarks of Yemen pre-conflict was Yemenis did not identify as Zaidi, Shafi’i, Sunni, Shia. And most Yemenis didn’t even know what everybody else was. Houthis are from the Zaidi religious school. Some people have described them as neo-Zaidi or kind of almost a fundamentalist Zaidi. And obviously the Saudi view of Irani Shia play into how they’re viewing the Houthis. So there is—as I said, elements of that narrative are creeping into this war.
Certainly, the Saudis see this as both a part of their political rivalry with Iran, but also part of the Saudi Wahhabi view of Shiism in general. And that is creeping in.
It has not generated a lot of the political discussion. But most of us would agree with you, that the longer this conflict goes on, the more it will start to divide along sectarian lines, which will make the polarization greater, and therefore the compromises and the reconciliation that much more difficult. Which is another reason why, of course, the war needs to end as soon as possible. But you’re absolutely right, we are moving towards those very dangerous sectarian narratives.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Marie Anne Sliwinski with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
SLIWINSKI: Hi, Dr. Bodine. Thank you so much for your presentation.
My question is around the role of humanitarian agencies in providing relief in Yemen. We understand that there’s a lot of U.N. and government funding around humanitarian assistance. But I represent the church, and there is a lot of ecumenical partners that are interested in providing assistance. However, from our understanding, it’s very difficult to conduct that in a country specifically when there’s the term “Christian” associated in our names. Can you tell us a little bit more about your thoughts and opinion on that?
BODINE: Yes. The heroes of Yemen have certainly been the humanitarian agencies that have continued to operate throughout this conflict by trying to bring in food, trying to provide medical care, and even trying to keep schools going. And they have been operating with local staff and local NGOs and civil society. It’s the Save the Children, the CARE, the Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, and a number of others operating in coalition.
BODINE: That my experience in Yemen is that there is no particular reason why Christian-based groups cannot operate in Yemen effectively and at least as safely as everyone else or no greater degree of danger than anyone else. When I was there, we were funding a midwifery training program and it was being run by Seventh Day Adventists. Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity had four centers. There was a Baptist hospital that operated in Yemen and had been there for thirty or forty years.
And so Christians and Christian-denominated or Christian-named organizations did not have a problem operating in Yemen. So I don’t think that should be a particular issue. I do think that because it is very difficult to operate there, just getting things through the ports and to the cities and to the people who need them, my understanding is that some smaller NGOs are working in consortium because it’s easier. But a denominational issue should not be a problem in and of itself, unless you have heard differently.
SLIWINSKI: No, registration has been an issue, especially when they do see board members do belong to a Christian church. So different registrations have been a challenge. But this is good to know. Thank you so much.
BODINE: Registration is hard for everybody. So yeah, I think it’s just a question of is it a discriminatory problem or is it just the chaos and bureaucratics. I don’t know.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Alan Bentz-Letts with Riverside Church. Please go ahead with your question.
BENTZ-LETTS: Yes. Hello. Thank you very much for that comprehensive view of the conflict. It really was very informative and helpful.
I wanted to ask further about the cholera epidemic problem, and when we first heard of that some months ago it was described as really serious. I’m wondering how it is proceeding now. I know hospitals have been bombed. It’s tough for medical supplies to get into the country. What is the state of that and how is that contributing to the deaths in addition to the food insecurity?
BODINE: The cholera is probably the worst cholera epidemic in modern history and, unfortunately, despite tremendous efforts on the part of the U.N. and NGOs, humanitarian groups, to try to get it under control, the most recent data I have shows that as of now there have been two hundred thousand suspected cases have been reported just in 2019, which is triple the number during the same period in 2018. So it is actually getting worse.
What is particularly tragic about cholera deaths is cholera is completely preventable and curable, and the fact that at one point there were one million suspected cases in a country of twenty-five to thirty million. Imagine if we had that many cases in California. That’s outrageous, and it is due primarily to destruction of the water treatment plants, destruction of the pipes, and the lack of maintenance of pipes. It’s dirty water, and the people who are most susceptible are children who are already weakened by a lack of food, women who are weakened by a lack of food, and this problem is exacerbated by the lack of medicine.
So it is affecting children and women disproportionately and the numbers are staggering by any measure, and is not getting better.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Galen Carey with National Association of Evangelicals. Please go ahead.
CAREY: Thank you. So you mentioned that this is a not forgotten but, rather, unknown crisis and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how Americans can be brought up to date and can come to care about the issues and, particularly, how that can be done in a way that the conflict doesn’t get implicated in our own domestic politics with one side or another claiming to have the moral high ground.
BODINE: Right. I think that’s a very good final point, and I will say that the leaders in Congress who is trying to force a reexamination of what we are doing in Yemen are a Republican senator from Indiana and the head of the World Food Programme, who is a former Republican governor from Georgia.
So this can and should be a nonpartisan issue. In terms of how we get more Americans to understand what’s going on, I don’t—I think you all being on this call and expressing your interest in trying to learn more about it and then the ripple effect from this conversation is part of that. There are Yemeni populations all across the United States. There is actually a very large community in the United States, not just in Dearborn, Brooklyn, and the San Joaquin Valley, and I think trying to reach out to them even if it’s by contacting the local university and ask them to come and talk to your group and hear from them what is going on.
I think some of this has to be really pushing our members of Congress to see the Yemeni conflict for itself in terms of the Yemeni people, and not just seeing it as a pawn on a chessboard between Saudi Arabia and Iran or between different views within this country, but really trying to focus on Yemen itself, because unfortunately, it is generally discussed as another example of what the Saudis are doing or it’s another example of the Sunni-Shi’a divide or a further example of. But it’s barely ever looked at on its own merits and its own roots and particularly, its own consequences.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Liz Bajjalieh with Friends Committee of National Legislation. Please go ahead with your question.
BAJJALIEH: Hi, there. Thank you, Dr. Bodine. I appreciate you being here.
I noticed when you were talking about the cost you said it is a famine, which is kind of interesting because I know where I work, out of CNL, in the more advocacy world we sometimes have—we’re not quite sure what is the right language. Is it on the brink of famine? Is it, as you said a little later—
BAJJALIEH: —merely food insecure? So what led you to use the terminology of saying this is, indeed, a famine?
BODINE: Yeah. There’s a—with all due to respect to my audience, there’s a theology on what constitutes an actual famine and—but and I think, technically, this is supposed to be near famine or about to be a famine. But if you want to get a sense of what’s going on in Yemen, I recommend that you look at the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine of last November 4, and there’s a photograph of a young girl, and if you can tell me the difference between near famine and famine, that, to me, is a difference without a distinction, or the other way around.
There are people who do not have enough food to live from day to day. They are undernourished, malnourished. Their resistance to disease is highly compromised. The long-term effects on the children in terms of both physical development and cognitive development is already having—is already having that effect. And so I use famine as a shorthand because in talking to people who really follow this, the difference between near famine and actual famine is not one that the people on the ground would actually recognize.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Doug Hostetter with Pax Christi International. Please go ahead with your question.
HOSTETTER: Hi. Thank you very much for your presentation and for your obvious compassion and care for the people themselves.
I was wondering if you could tell us anything about the involvement of Erik Prince, Betsy DeVos’s brother and mercenaries that are said to be involved there. And then as a follow-up, is there any official U.S. government policy in relationship to mercenaries?
BODINE: Great question. I do know that the Emiratis, though, as I said, are the boots on the ground, have brought several thousand mercenaries to Yemen. I do not know their nationalities. I know some of them are Sudanese but others are not. There are reports of Australians having been killed in some fighting. Whether or not Erik Prince and whatever his organization is called now is involved, I don’t know. I have not heard that specifically. But there are definitely mercenaries there.
The U.S. government does not have a policy that restricts Americans from serving as what you and I, apparently, would be comfortable calling mercenaries as long as they’re not active duty U.S. military. There was one article a couple of months ago about American mercenaries and one of them was an Army Reservist. It was a fascinating story. Whether or not it was true, nobody was ever able to verify.
We don’t have a policy that says Americans cannot be mercenaries and we don’t have a policy that says our friends cannot hire mercenaries. So they prefer private security firms that operate all over the world and I’m sure they’re in Yemen as well.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Vanessa Lovelace with Interdenominational Theological Center. Please go ahead with your question.
BENTLEY: All right. So on the call is actually her son, Khalil Bentley. I’m from Denison University.
BODINE: All right.
BENTLEY: Thank you. So I wanted to say thank you for the background information and I wanted to say thank you for allowing this to be something that many people could participate in.
I was going to ask is the U.S. government or are we somehow complicit in the situation right now in Yemen as far as the humanitarian crisis, as far as the cholera outbreak, famine or near famine, is concerned? And I feel like that may have already been somewhat answered, about the previous person’s question about mercenaries.
BODINE: Well, the United States government, that I do not work for anymore—a contributor to the humanitarian relief effort through both personal and governmental funding to the groups that are working there on the ground—U.N., international organizations, and the like.
But I do think that it is fair to put on the table that the U.S. government has actively supported the Saudi coalition’s efforts in Yemen and this has been, as many of you know, increasingly a topic of debate and vote in Congress.
We were, up until recently, refueling the Saudi planes and Emirati planes that conduct hundreds of thousands of air—bombing campaigns on Yemen—the destruction of the infrastructure, the destruction of water treatment and electrical plants and medical clinics and all of that being done. We were refueling those planes.
We provide billions of dollars of weaponry and armaments to, particularly, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. We are part of the naval blockade at Hodeidah Port and we, along with the British and the French and others, are very much if not actively involved—we do not have U.S. boots on the ground, or not too many anyway—but we are complicit. We are complicit in the support we give to their military. We are part of the intelligence centers that determine bombing and we have also provided unstinting political support to the coalition in what they’re trying to do.
So on one hand, we are deeply complicit in what is going on militarily and the destruction in Yemen, which has led to the famine and the cholera. We also support the U.N. Special Envoy for Peace. We also provide funding for humanitarian. So we’re kind of on all three elements. But I do think that Congress’s increasing focus on whether or not we should be doing the military support is—are the right and proper questions to be asking and, as you probably know, there was a vote that did call for the cutoff of our resupply to the Saudis and Emiratis and that passed both houses.
Now, it was vetoed by the president and the president has recently announced a national emergency and is going to provide the weaponry and equipment notwithstanding Congress’s vote. But yes, we are responsible, if not directly involved.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Virginia Farris with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Please go ahead with your question.
FARRIS: Ambassador Bodine, I wondered, and I realize this may be a little bit of a stretch, but to what extent has there been any statement or effort by religious leaders in the Gulf area to try and resolve some of the conflict to lessen the suffering?
BODINE: As far as I know, religious leaders in the Gulf area have not said anything about this conflict or the humanitarian element. The Red Crescent is involved in some of the humanitarian work and there are places, obviously, that the Red Crescent can go that others may not feel comfortable going. But as far as religious leaders, in their leadership capacity, speaking out against this conflict, I am not personally aware of any statement or actions by them.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Abraham al-Amoufi with National Peace. Please go ahead with your question.
FARRIS: Thank you very much. Dr. Bodine, welcome to you, the good friend and old friend of Yemen.
In fact, this war and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, it has to be ended very soon. And Ambassador Bodine mentioned that this is a civil war. In fact, it is not a civil war; it is a war which has been imposed by the Houthis. And you know very well that there was a national dialogue, and there was a consensus in this national dialogue based on the GCC Initiative, U.N. Resolution 2216, as well as the outcome of the national dialogue. And then the Houthis attempted and did a coup in September 2014.
Now, the Houthis, as you know, are a religious group, they are a sectarian group, and that they believe in supremacy. They believe in supremacy which they have the right to control all Yemenis—the whole Yemen from the south to the east, from the west to the south, and believe they have the right to rule the whole Yemenis. And then they are linked totally with the authority of imam with Iran in the region.
Now, at the time of prospect of peace, I would like to hear from you what is your assessment on the references which have been mentioned in the Security Council with Resolution 2216 as a roadmap of the peace process or prospect of peace in Yemen—Security Council resolution. Thank you.
BODINE: I agree with you that as I did mention in February 2011, when the Arab Spring came to Yemen, there was a peaceful transfer of power under the GCC agreement with Saleh stepping down and Hadi taking power, which is why he is accepted and seen as the legitimate government of Yemen, and that for a variety of reasons that you undoubtedly understand quite well, the Houthi did come out of the north and did take over Sana’a in September ’14. And then as they moved south that precipitated the Saudis and the Emiratis coming in at Hadi’s invitation and Resolution 2216.
My point was that even if the Saudis and Emiratis had not come in, there would have been a civil war within Yemen because not all of Yemen would have accepted the Houthi as sovereign, you are right. They intend to take over the entire country and large elements of the country do not accept that. That is the definition of a civil war.
The question is: did it become qualitatively different with the intervention of outside powers? There is a road map, and there has been the Stockholm Agreement which has not been as effective and successful as we all hoped. But it was the beginning of a conversation between the Houthi and the Hadi government, facilitated by the U.N. to try to, first of all, pull back the offensive on Hodeidah, begin discussions on the siege of Taiz, and a number of other steps to get toward peace conversations and peace discussions. There was even a conversation to try to get the central bank up and running, which is—the financial crisis in addition to everything else is something that has to be resolved.
All of that is very true. It is going to take a long time to work all this out. The problem with 2216 is that it described a situation in Yemen as it was in March of 2015. The situation on the ground has changed considerably in five years, and the steps that are going to be needed, the road map that is going to have to be taken is going to be different than that set out in 2016.
There will definitely have to be an element that preserves the security of the Saudi border. Of course the Saudis want to have a secure border. There is going to have to be an element that preserves international shipping through the Bab el-Mandab. There is going to have to be a new political contract, which is very much national dialogue.
There is a basis for rebuilding the politics of Yemen. There is a basis for securing Yemen within its region. And there are people and the ability to solve the humanitarian crisis. We don’t have a step-by-step road map, but I think with the Stockholm Agreement, and what it put in place, and what it’s trying to do, we’re beginning to see the outlines of where we may be able to go.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you for the question.
The next question will come from Daniel Pincus with American Jewish Committee. Please go ahead with your question.
PINCUS: Hello. Thank you very much for your talk.
I wanted to begin by addressing one of your issues which is that the subject of Yemen is not being raised in the public discourse. A dear friend of mine named Mohammed Al Samawi is a refugee from Yemen, and he wrote memoir of his evacuation from the war titled The Fox Hunt. It’s going around in universities now, and 20th Century Fox is developing it into a film which will come out in coming years. It is being considered for curricula in universities across the country. So that’s a positive—if we’re looking for a silver lining— for me that’s one.
But my question is looking at the history of Yemen, I guess Yemen had a long succession of imams that led the country, and perhaps we can look back a little bit further from 2014 and saw that perhaps the instability began maybe in 1962 with the revolt against the imamate.
And so my question may be absurd, but is there a possibility that part of the solution may come from a return to more organic, lasting source of authority within the country in that sort of line of succession rather than the sort of domestic groups battling for power? I just wanted to know your thoughts on that.
BODINE: Yeah, thank you for the information on the book. And for those of you interested in Yemen, there is a movie going around called Ten Days to the Wedding, which takes place in Aden. And if you want to just get a taste of what Yemen is like and what Yemenis are like, it’s a thoroughly, thoroughly wonderful movie.
The imamate did rule northern Yemen for about a thousand years, but like many systems, it had definitely run its course by the 1960s. It was holding Yemen back. It had held Yemen in kind of a 14th-century state and shut off from the outside world. And the only people that I know of who would really like to bring the imam back are, by the way, the Houthi, who are sometimes described as neo-imamates. They would very much like to bring the imam back, but I think bringing the imam back to Yemen has about as much chance of happening as perhaps the Romanovs coming back to Russia. I don’t think that is a solution.
I would note that while it was fragile, and wobbly, and idiosyncratic, between 1990 and kind of the mid-2000s, Yemen was actually seen as an emerging indigenous democracy. It had a whole range of political parties—socialist parties, an Islahi party, there was even a Ba’ath party and a Nasserite party. There was everything. But they had legal political parties, they had contested parliamentary elections. There was even a contested presidential election. Observers saw the elections as relatively free and fair.
There are institutions there. The National Dialogue Conference, which an earlier person brought up, was a remarkable effort on the part of a highly diverse group of Yemenis to rewrite a social contract. Five hundred and sixty-five Yemenis for about seven or eight months talked through how should the state be structured, you know, what are the sources of law, what do you do about transitional justice. I’m not sure we could actually do something like that.
There are institutions. There are—experience with democratic governance. Imperfect? Absolutely. Wobbly? Yes. Ultimately failed? Unfortunately. But they are there. And I think we need to recognize that Yemen has evolved since 1962, politically and socially. And what they are trying to do—and this is what the war is about—is what is the new Yemen going to look like?
But I don’t think going back to a medieval imamate would be acceptable to the Yemenis, and I don’t think it would be good for their future.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Other questions?
OPERATOR: Thank you. As a final reminder, if you have a question at this time, please dial star 1 to enter the queue.
FASKIANOS: Barbara, while we’re waiting for one last question, what happens now that the U.S. Senate failed to override the president’s veto of a resolution to end American involvement in the Yemeni conflict?
BODINE: Yes, unfortunately, the president has opted to not only veto the congressional resolution but to invoke a national emergency so that he could go ahead. And I think the Congress itself is going to have to decide whether or not that was an appropriate action.
I do think the congressional vote, however, was extraordinarily important in that it signaled to all sides of this conflict that it’s a circular firing squad; it’s not just two sides. And we do tend to talk about it as two sides, but it’s not. It’s so much more complex. But it did signal that there is a limit to how far the United States will go in supporting this war and supporting the prosecution of the war the way it has been done. And I think that was critically important. That was a signal we did not have before.
So I put that—you know, to be an effective diplomat, you have to be very much an incrementalist, and I see that as a step forward in our recognition of what this war has cost, what the cost is going to be going forward, a recognition that there is not a military solution on either side or any side—any of the sides to this conflict, and that it has to be wound down militarily so that the discussions by the Yemenis about their political future can move forward. It’s going to take a long time, but we can at least—and I think what Congress was signaling is that we need to start ratcheting down the asymmetrical conflict and allow the Yemenis to come up with the solution with international support. So I thought it was significant.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. It’s good to have your perspective given your extensive time in the Foreign Service and obviously studying the conflict in Yemen, and seeing how it has unfolded.
We are almost at the end of our time, so I just wanted to give you the last minute or so to leave us with any final thoughts, especially given that this group is a group of religious leaders and scholars, and very much concerned about what is happening there and the humanitarian crisis that we are seeing.
BODINE: Well, I want to thank you very much for putting this together. And as I said at the beginning, for all of you who have been listening and asked perfect, spot-on questions—for your interest in this. Eighteen months ago I don’t think we would been able to have developed any interest in the subject and the fact that you will take this and share gives those of us who know there has to be more of a public and political push to get this resolved a sense that there is some hope.
I do think this conflict will end. It will not be quick, but I think if there is enough public interest and a recognition of what’s happening, that we can find ways, or encourage all the parties who are involved to find ways to finally bring the thing to an end before we have—I don’t know what the word beyond humanitarian catastrophe is, but whatever the next level up, we don’t want to find out what that is.
So I thank you all for your interest and your involvement politically, humanitarianly, personally in this conflict, so thank you.
FASKIANOS: Barbara Bodine, thank you very much for sharing your valuable insights and analysis today and, of course, for your service to our country. And now you are continuing on and helping train up the next generation of leaders to hopefully deal with these issues in the Foreign Service. So we appreciate your contributions.
Thank you all for being on this call. We encourage you to follow Ambassador Bodine’s work at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and elsewhere. Please also follow us, the Religion and Foreign Policy Program, on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. And as always, I encourage you to reach out to us at [email protected] with any suggestions on future calls, speakers, or events that we should be thinking about bringing to this forum.
So thank you all again, and we look forward to your continued participation in our discussions.