December 21, 2005

Editorial: The USS Cole - A Victim of Bad Policy?

Originally published: October 26, 2000

The October 12 terrorist attack on the USS Cole while refueling in the port of Aden raises serious questions about U.S. foreign policy decision-making, specifically political-military policy. Aside from the most important question – who did it? – it might be wise to ask the Pentagon why was the ship in Yemen at all?

On October 19, former Central Command (CENTCOM) commander in chief, retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, testified before Congressional committees that he had made the decision a few years ago when he was at the helm to use the Yemeni port for refueling U.S. Navy ships. Zinni stated that he was presented only with poor choices of refueling locations. This statement flies in the face of conventional wisdom - there are numerous safer refueling locations in the region - Abu Dhabi, Jebel Ali, Dubai, Fujayrah, and Muscat come to mind. When you add the fact that this particular ship had a range in excess of 4000 miles, the claim of the requirement to refuel in Aden loses credibility. Although there is no doubt about the need to use more foreign ports due to cutbacks in military spending and the resultant loss of refueling ships to support underway replenishments, the USS Cole issue has more to do with politics than with logistics.

At the core is CENTCOM’s longtime desire to establish a headquarters in the region – a valid requirement. In a perfect world, CENTCOM headquarters would be located in the region in a stable country with adequate support facilities. That means Saudi Arabia or Egypt. These two countries have been traditionally friendly to the United States and have the infrastructure to support an American military presence. However, neither country will allow it for internal political reasons. Given strident animosity toward the United States for what most Arabs consider blind American support for Israel, no Arab country could permit the permanent stationing of U.S. forces on its soil and survive the resulting public outcry.

Conversely, the countries that might allow the presence of a U.S. military headquarters do not meet the requirements. Kuwait is too close to Iraq; Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman are too close to Iran; and Jordan is too close to, and tied to, the Syria-Lebanon-Israel situation (and these three countries are in the European Command area of responsibility).

CENTCOM has thus set its eyes on Yemen, despite Yemen’s vocal and material support for Iraq during the Gulf War. The Republic of Yemen occupies the southern strip of the Arabian Peninsula and controls the eastern side of the southern entrance to the Red Sea. CENTCOM has always considered the location to be of extreme strategic importance – perhaps overly so.

Yemen has been a favorite of CENTCOM as far back as the early 1980s. At that time, there were two Yemens - the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) friendly to the United States, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), a virtual Soviet client state. South Yemen hosted a large Soviet advisory contingent and allowed the Soviet Navy to use the excellent port facility at Aden. The two Yemens united in May of 1990.

Prior to unification, CENTCOM had tried to convince the president of then-separate North Yemen, President 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih, to allow a permanent American presence, and continued to do so after the Gulf War as Salih stayed on as the leader of the newly united Republic of Yemen. Over the last few years, American senior officers, including every CENTCOM commander in chief, have repeatedly visited the united Republic of Yemen. During these visits, the officers routinely meet with President Salih and his senior military leadership, and visit U.S. troops in the country training Yemeni forces in land mine removal, and helping the Yemeni navy establish a coast guard.

According to the Yemeni media, senior American officers routinely request President Salih to allow the United States to establish a military base in Yemen, probably on the island of Socotra. The United States continually denies this, but concedes that there are plans to increase military cooperation between the two countries. While there is no doubt that the United States would be better served if CENTCOM’s headquarters was located in its area of responsibility, establishing the headquarters in Yemen is only marginally better than Tampa, and may be worse depending on the availability of communications and logistics.

Any increased U.S.-Yemen military relationship has been hotly debated between CENTCOM and Middle East specialists in Washington, primarily at the Defense Department. While Washington analysts support a forward headquarters, they believe, and I agree, that Yemen is not the venue. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, an experienced Middle East specialist, supported this view. As early as March of this year, she recommended that the Navy not authorize ship visits to Aden. In fact, the State Department’s annual report on terrorism states that “lax and inefficient enforcement of security procedures and the government's inability to exercise authority over remote areas of the country continued to make the country a safehaven for terrorist groups.”

The recent ship visits – including that of the USS Cole – to Aden were more of a misguided CENTCOM effort to show the flag and build the bilateral U.S.-Yemeni relationship than a valid logistical requirement. Unfortunately the Navy was directed by the CENTCOM staff to use the Yemeni port to bolster relations.

Political expediency and military prudence do not always go hand in hand.