Q&A: Ambassador Bodine talks protests at old post in Yemen
As her former embassy in Yemen was stormed by protestors angered by an anti-Islam film, Barbara Bodine watched the chaos from the comfort of the Wilson School. Bodine, who served as the American ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001 as part of her 30 years in the Foreign Service, currently lectures at the Wilson School while leading the school’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative.
On Tuesday, Bodine sat down with The Daily Princetonian to give her perspective on the protests rocking her old post in Yemen.
Daily Princetonian: What is your reaction to the protests over the Prophet Muhammad video?
Barbara Bodine: I think on one level it needs to be said that the loss of four diplomats, Chris Stevens and his three colleagues, is a horrible tragedy, and whatever you say about the video, nothing justifies that. At the same time, I think we need to look at the broader demonstrations, not just what happened in Benghazi. That video, by all accounts, was reprehensible in the extreme, and it was not made as freedom of speech. It was not made, certainly, as freedom of religion — it was done with the sole and explicit purpose of provoking outrage. There are limits on yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, of hate speech, of incitement of violence, and I think there is a measure of responsibility to those who did the video.
If you look at most of the places where the demonstrations were — Tunisia, Egypt and the others — a lot of these are places where they are going through transitions. There is a domestic battle for the future character of the societies and the government, and this played into it. In a sense, the people with the video handed a lighted torch to the extremists on their side, who were then able to generate the protest. I think we need to keep it in perspective and understand how much of this is their own domestic issues. We are the target and the symbol, but this is not an indictment on President Obama’s Middle East policies.
DP: What do you think the United States should do in response, if anything?
BB: I think that we have to be careful not to overreact. There is a difference between hostile events and hostile environments. I think we need to keep the numbers in context, and I think while we’re focusing on the hostility of the groups that did show up at our embassies, we also need to look at the reactions of the broad populations of these countries. Going back to Benghazi, we need to balance the horrific actions of those who attacked our diplomats with the very heroic actions of Libyans who tried to save them and the others.
I think we need to recognize that while they were a little slow off the mark, the local authorities did come to help defend the embassies, which is their national obligation. I think we need to keep it in perspective. That’s not being dismissive, that’s not being a relativist, to not judge the entire society by the actions of the few. We do not wish to be judged by the people who made the video — we shouldn’t judge an entire region by the actions of a few.
DP: How would you characterize the political atmosphere in Yemen?
BB: Unsettled. They’re going through a very difficult transition, the same kind of political transition that you have in Egypt and in Tunisia. They’re also dealing with a resurging al-Qaeda presence and doing it with virtually no resources, so I think there are a lot of people with a lot of great hopes and expectations — hopefully not too much — as there needs to be a lot of patience as you work through this, as it’s a very unsettled situation.
DP: How has Yemen changed since you were ambassador there?
BB: I’m not sure that the essential Yemen has changed. The country is still facing the same core issues — population, economy, resources, unsettled peripheries, a lack of strong government institutions — and so in many ways it is still grappling with the same problems. The degree of frustration among the people has gone up as problems that have been there for decades have not been resolved.
DP: How has America’s relationship with Yemen changed?
BB: We have a good relationship with Yemen. Yemen is not a key ally in the region the way some other states are. They’ve also never been an enemy. The relationship is a good one; there are times when we sort of look more like best frenemies. They’re not always convinced that we have their best interest at heart. We sometimes disagree with some of their policies, but it’s done within the context of a fundamentally good relationship, and a fundamentally good relationship with the Yemeni people.
DP: Going forward, do you have any recommendations for the elected president in interacting with Yemen?
BB: We need to recalibrate or refocus our engagement with Yemen and put much more emphasis on helping them deal with their medium- and long-term challenges and less of a sole focus on short-term security. It’s not a question of not doing security. It’s a question of opening the aperture so we’re also working with the Yemenis on their fundamental issues, which in the long term will determine whether the security can also be managed.
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.