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Obama must step carefully in Yemen

The closing of the US Embassy in Yemen shows the difficulty of beefing up the American counterterrorist effort in the Arab world’s poorest country.

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The failed bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day has pushed President Obama to make a stronger US commitment to Yemen, a pivotal Muslim country where the alleged jet bomber from Nigeria was trained. 

The US will now more than double its military aid to Yemen while also possibly providing millions more for government reform and economic uplift to the poorest nation in the Arab world.

But coming after costly US actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, Congress and the American people need to ask: Is Yemen really a country ripe for the kind of nation building that will quell support for radical Islam?

A key lesson since 9/11 is that US military action and security assistance alone will not force a Muslim country to act boldly against militants. And overreacting with force can cause more harm than benefits. Each country’s unique characteristics – such as the strength of its tribal sheikhs, its history of democratic rule, the influence of neighboring states – must be weighed carefully in designing a counterinsurgency strategy.

Most of all, without public confidence of success in a new strategy toward Yemen, US lawmakers may not support a long-term effort to expel the militants. Several hundred Al Qaeda operatives are presumed to be active in this largely lawless nation of 23 million that is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden

The fact that the US had to close its embassy in the Yemeni capital this week under the threat of a bombing attack gives a clue to the long and complex struggle ahead.

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