What Went Wrong in Yemen: Q&A with Alexandra Stark


May 8, 2024

A child plays at a camp of displaced people in Harad District, Yemen, March 3, 2020, photo by Mohammed Alwafi/Xinhua/Alamy

A child plays at a camp of displaced people in Harad District, Yemen, March 3, 2020

Photo by Mohammed Alwafi/Xinhua/Alamy

Alex Stark thought this year would be different. She studies Yemen, a country that has been mired in civil war for nearly a decade. And at this time last year, peace finally seemed within reach.

Then Oct. 7 happened. The war in Gaza happened. And hopes for peace in Yemen slipped away again.

Alex Stark

Alex Stark

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND

Stark is an associate policy researcher at RAND. In a new book, she documents the missteps and missed opportunities that allowed a rebel militia, the Houthis, to seize much of the country in 2014. The Houthis, backed by Iran, are now attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea in a show of support for Gaza. Peace talks have stalled. Instead, the United States and its partners have launched large-scale airstrikes against Houthi missile sites.

Stark's book, published in April, is titled The Yemen Model: Why U.S. Policy Has Failed in the Middle East. Understanding what went so wrong in Yemen, she argues, provides a window into how the United States could play a more effective role throughout the region.

What made you decide to write this book?

Yemen is a place that many Americans don't really know about, don't really think about—but it's been a major part of U.S. policy for decades. I've seen memos from President Kennedy in the 1960s talking with his senior advisers about what the United States should do in Yemen, what U.S. interests are. More recently, Yemen has been the site of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with children starving and millions of people displaced. I wanted to take a closer look at the U.S. approach to Yemen because Yemen just keeps coming back into the conversation about U.S. policy in the region.

Book cover of The Yemen Model by Alex Stark, image by Yale University Press

The Yemen Model (Yale University Press, 2024) is available at yalebooks.yale.edu and other online booksellers.

Why has U.S. policy failed there?

'The Yemen Model' is a term that U.S. officials used in 2013 and 2014 to talk about how the United States was conducting counterterrorism there. They thought it was so successful that it could be a model for other places. Then, in September 2014, the Houthis took over the capital city of Sana'a and the country descended into civil war. U.S. officials had this very narrow counterterrorism focus, and so they were blinded to what was really happening.

That's always been the U.S. approach to Yemen. It's always about something else. It's about counterterrorism or countering Iran; during the Cold War, it was about countering Soviet influence. It's not really about Yemen itself, what might be good for Yemen, what would make for a more stable society there.

How do you think the United States should reorient its approach?

Policymakers should start asking: How can we help Yemenis make Yemen a more stable place, a place where people are safe and secure and they can work and make money and feed and support their families. That could go in a lot of different directions, but here's one. Climate change is going to be a significant challenge for Yemen. It's a poor country, it has very few water resources. What would it look like for the United States to really work with its partners in the region to help Yemen deal with the effects of climate change?

Climate change is going to be a significant challenge for Yemen. It's a poor country, it has very few water resources.

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People might say, 'Oh, that's naïve, we have to think about U.S. interests.' But it's critical that we get outside of this narrow box of how we've always thought about Yemen and think about different approaches we could take. What we've been doing hasn't worked.

It seems like Yemen is really at a tipping point right now. What are you watching for in the months to come?

The Houthis have kept up the tempo of their attacks on shipping since January of this year. I'll be interested to see whether the pace of those attacks declines over time. The Houthis themselves have gone out of their way to tie those attacks to the conflict in Gaza. I don't think we can necessarily take them at their word. But it will be interesting to see whether what happens in Gaza really does affect their actions, and whether mediating that conflict can cool down some of these hot spots that have emerged.

What do you wish more people knew about the conflict in Yemen?

That diplomacy takes time. Sometimes there's frustration when we try to engage in diplomacy and we don't see any changes right away. But diplomacy is messy. It's two steps forward, one step back. That's all the more reason why we need the United States to be engaged for the long term in these kinds of conflicts. It's complicated right now with what's going on with the Houthis—and the civil war in Yemen is not over. But U.S. and U.N. efforts at diplomacy over the past few years have had a striking effect. They led to a truce that lasted for more than a year and a half, which really decreased the level of violence and opened up space for negotiations. You don't hear about that in a lot of the news out of Yemen, but there is that small good-news story in there.

Your work at RAND has also looked at how to avoid escalation in Ukraine and how climate change could drive conflict throughout the Middle East. What motivates you to do the research you do?

I'm Jewish on my dad's side and Armenian on my mom's side. So stories about genocide and political violence and how that shapes people were just part of my life growing up. I've been interested ever since in thinking about how U.S. policy can mitigate, or even prevent, that kind of violence, and hopefully make people's lives a little better. That's the crosscutting theme that informs all of my research at RAND.

Alex Stark is an associate policy researcher at RAND. Prior to joining RAND in 2023, she was a senior researcher at New America, a predoctoral fellow at the Middle East Institute of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace.