Before I met Mr.YemenEm, I don’t think I knew what a diplomat was. I probably grouped diplomat with words like plutocrat, Argonaut, and Gangnam Style that I’d read and meant to look up, but never got around to. After I learned that a diplomat is a person who represents their country abroad, I still didn’t really have a grasp of what it meant. Mr.YemenEm explained that his job was a “hearts and minds” type job, a phrase I had heard before, but never really understood. Only when I moved to Yemen and saw real life diplomats doing their jobs did I understand what a diplomat is, and more importantly, why they are important for America.
It might be kind of controversial that American taxpayer money is being spent in Yemen on things like cultural exchange programs, repairing schools, helping farmers grow more produce, providing job training to young men and women, and giving food to starving people. Some might make the argument that there are plenty of needy people in the U.S. (there are, but in a totally different way) or they might say we shouldn’t be providing aid to a country with known terrorists who would like nothing better than to kill Americans. They might also say that the only assistance we should be providing in a country like Yemen is military assistance. But I’d have to disagree with all that.
In December, Mr.YemenEm and I were in Thailand on vacation and we met up with some new friends from Michigan. Like me not too long ago, they had never known that the job of a Foreign Service Officer existed so they were asking us basic questions about what Mr.YemenEm does and why we’d be providing assistance to Yemen in the first place. This was kind of fun, because after being around so many diplomats in Yemen, and hearing many nitty-gritty, acronym-laden conversations about the job, it was nice to take a step back and explain in big-picture and simple terms, the basis for U.S. diplomacy in Yemen. (Side note: I think everyone should have to explain what it is they do or believe in very simple terms now and again. Like Einstein supposedly said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”)
So why are we spending taxpayer money in Yemen? How does that benefit the U.S.?
I’m not expert (clearly, I didn’t even know what a diplomat was until fairly recently. I now know what Gangnam Style is but the Harlem Shake is still a mystery) but I am of the mindset that violent extremists often became that way because they didn’t have any job opportunities, money, or education. Yes, occasionally you do get guys who are educated, sometimes even in the U.S. and yet are still drawn to terrorism. But more often than not, terrorist organizations recruit uneducated, unemployed, poor boys and men into their ranks. When the U.S. (and other international donors) provide job trainings, a young guy who didn’t have any prospects might now be able to get a job and make some money doing something productive. That guy might be less swayed to say, build bombs to kill people, or even strap a bomb on himself because he has better things to do. By assisting in farming, Yemeni farmers could actually make more money for their vegetables, or coffee, or honey, and be able to make a better living. (Food is super expensive in Yemen compared to what people here actually make. So making a better income means being able to feed your family). Aside from the U.S. providing assistance to better the lives of the Yemeni people, it also doesn’t hurt to see “Provided by America” or “Brought to you by the United States” on new schools, health clinics, and community spaces. Americans are a generous people and others – particular in the Middle East – should know that. Many rural Yemenis have never met an American, and they only know about the U.S. from what they’ve heard from others. Often, this might be bad and mostly untrue things such as we are greedy, have no morals, are seeking world domination, and that we all love the Jersey Shore.
On an individual level, I think the biggest single mind-changing effect the U.S. government can have in Yemen is found in work that Mr.YemenEm does. Providing English language programs and opportunities for Yemenis to study in the U.S. can be life changing. By teaching Yemeni young people English, an entire new world is opened – one in which communication with an enormous range of people is now possible, since English is spoken all over the world. Not only that, but when Yemenis learn English from an American they might change any negative views they might have had of Americans. Moreover, when Yemenis travel to the U.S. for educational programs such as high school exchanges or the Fulbright program, more often than not, they return to Yemen speaking glowingly of the U.S. (because, let’s be honest, no matter where you are in the U.S. – from Nebraska, to Texas, to California, the U.S. is pretty damn amazing). They spread that word to their friends. They rise through the ranks of Yemen’s academia, business landscape, or government and carry those favorable views on America with them forever.
The other definition of a diplomat is someone who can engage with others in a very sensitive way and effective way. Mr.YemenEm is the best diplomat because not only is he incredibly sincere and enthusiastic about his work, but you should hear the guy argue. Seriously, every time we get in an argument, I go from being 100% certain I’m right and yelling “You’re so wrong it’s not even funny!” to capitulating and saying “Fine. I guess you’re right.” I hate that. He’ll usually start with something like “Well, I can certainly see your side of it, but let me ask you this…” and proceed to make his case, very diplomatically, about why his point of view is the correct one. Did I mention how annoying that is? He seems to take no joy out of being right whereas I practically have an “I’m right I’m right I’m right” jig. Sadly, I get to dance it less often that I’d like.
When we finished talking about how the U.S. government is assisting Yemen, our Michigan friends said “Well, that actually sounds like a very good use of taxpayer money.” I have no idea what their politics are, so I don’t know if we convinced small-government Libertarians that maybe the government should increase its foreign assistance budget; or defense spending-happy Republicans that there are more effective things to spend U.S. money on in the Middle East than guns and tanks; or tax-and-spend Democrats who already supported spending money on humanitarian aid and cultural programs in poor countries. But whatever, Mr.YemenEm, being the consummate diplomat made his case: It is totally worth it to spend money in countries like Yemen because the benefits down the road not only will benefit Yemeni people, but will likely benefit Americans as well. And I’d have to agree.