By Michael Shank

The drone memo matters, but what the West is failing to do on the ground matters more.

In Washington, D.C., it is rare for any adversarial country to remain in the forefront of foreign policy for very long. Yemen is an excellent example of how forgetful Washington can be. Having returned from Yemen this month, I was startled by the degree to which the country had already been placed on the back burner by much of the media only a few weeks after the White House killed scores of civilians in Yemen’s restive south.

Despite our perpetual drone strikes throughout Yemen, an ongoing humanitarian crisis, and a government in disarray, it took a White House memo to put Yemen back in the spotlight. The memo will be released thanks to pressure by liberal and conservative senators who have joined in holding up President Obama’s nomination of one of the memo’s authors, David J. Barron, to a federal appeals-court judgeship.

The White House’s forthcoming release of its classified drone memo, which justifies the killing of American citizens in Yemen, is an opportunity to discuss the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the ill-forged joint resolution permits the Pentagon to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time. Although Representatives Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D., Calif.) have both been working to sunset the AUMF through the National Defense Authorization Act, this policy has kept the administration’s hand unfettered in Yemen.

Now, as Washington debates the legal merits of killing American citizens in Yemen via drones, a bigger debate must be addressed: the merits of our Yemen policy generally. According to one prominent sheikh I met in Sana’a, who is close to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. has dropped significantly in Yemeni public opinion. Yemenis’ opinion of us was already low under President George W. Bush, but it has reached a new low under President Barack Obama.

Winning hearts and minds in Yemen, however, doesn’t have to be so difficult, according to the sheikh. His three recommendations are simple. First, provide economic support for the basic human needs of a population whose majority is starving and lacking access to clean water and sanitation. Second, decrease the drone strikes perpetrated by America in Yemen. This was a resounding call from everyone I met with in Sana’a, whether in government, the private sector, academia, or the media, and whether religious or secular. Third, choose better diplomats and experts for Yemen. The most recent U.S. ambassador’s approach, apparently, was not only insensitive but offensive and unhelpful.

Most importantly, drones won’t fix the instability in the south. After meeting with one prominent doctor from southern Yemen, who noted that there have been no tangible results from the United States’ war on al-Qaeda, I concluded that the issues are explicitly non-droneworthy. The biggest problems causing the most conflict are the lack of justice (i.e., rights, freedoms, social justice, and basic services, which were all things that President Saleh ignored), identity (the school curriculum erased southern Yemen as part of the nation and treated the south as non-native), and education (especially for women). These historical wrongs must be addressed in a process that remedies decades of political and economic marginalization, something American drones will never do and will ultimately make worse.

The paradox in Washington, among the development-contractor industry and international donor institutions, is that they claim this has been their focus in Yemen all along. The concerns and critiques voiced by members of civil society in Sana’a, however, tell a very different story. They speak of non-expert advisers and short-term workshops in five-star hotels, instead of human and financial resources directed to real needs on the ground and long-term mentoring and coaching that would build a sustainable capacity to lead.

For Yemeni women, for example, the international footprint has been particularly useless. While women now account for up to 30 percent of the national dialogue process and the transitional government — something for which the United Nations special representative took primary credit despite the years of advocacy by Yemeni women for this work — the U.S. and other foreign donors continue to treat women’s work shallowly and without appropriate expertise.

If women’s rights in Yemen were of real international concern, say locals, health funding would not remain a meager 4 percent of the government’s budget, leaving little money to provide primary health care and nutrition, and nothing for reproductive health. The development community would be working to combat female illiteracy (which hovers at a staggering 70 percent) and helping women set up small businesses and monitor the use of money — which we know women are better at than men — to cut down on rampant corruption. Since social capital remains strong among women, and they are providing much of the remaining glue in this unstable society, this is where the West should invest.

This may all seem far afield from the White House’s release of its drone memo, but it’s not. If policymakers truly care about the recruitment of Americans, or anyone, to the adversarial cause of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, and in Yemen specifically, they should change course in how we counter extremism. Violent extremism in Yemen is being built on the backs of the poor and the marginalized. If the West wants to undermine al-Qaeda’s rhetoric, it must work to remedy the reality on the ground. No number of White House kill lists, and the classified memos that obscure them, will cure it.

— Michael Shank is the associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He returned this month from an FCNL fact-finding mission in Yemen.