Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Ten Whats With…Gregory D. Johnsen

by Micah Zenko
November 29, 2012

A view is seen of the historic city of Thula in Yemen (Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Courtesy Reuters). A view is seen of the historic city of Thula in Yemen (Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Courtesy Reuters).


Gregory D. Johnsen is a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen and currently a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. He is the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia and writes the blog Waq al-Waq.

1. What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?
At the moment, I’m working on the project that has occupied most of the last decade of my life: a history of the Yemeni Civil War from 1962-1970. This is the subject of my dissertation at Princeton that I’ll be completing and submitting in late spring.

The civil war is a fascinating and understudied conflict from the Cold War. This was the place where what Malcom Kerr termed the “Arab Cold War” was fought out on the ground, with Nasser’s Egyptians fighting in support of the Republican forces while Saudi-backed Royalists attempted to hold onto the imamate.

Studying the shifting alliances of this conflict is what first drew me to Yemen, and it continues to fascinate me and, I think, holds a lot of lessons for current Yemeni politics. The actors then, as now, refused to be neatly categorized or act in ways that we think might make sense and instead make decisions with only partial or misleading information. Reading the memoirs and contemporary accounts of the civil war is a lot like reading a contemporary Arabic version of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones stories: political alliances, beheadings, and ruthless betrayals—it is all there.

2. What got you started in your career?
There are three things—two people and an instance—that put me on the path I’m on today. The first was my mother reading to me every night as a child. She instilled a love of books in me that has been hard to extinguish. I’ve always been a better reader than a student.

The second was an injury during the NY state Snickers Cup soccer final during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. The injury forced me to refocus on school and made me realize that my soccer days were going to be short. Thankfully, I took a course—The Greek and Roman World—with Dr. Robert Babcock the next semester at Hastings College, and that course altered the arc of my life and made me want to be a historian.

3. What advice would you give to young people in your field?
The best advice I could give anyone, young or old, is: read. The smartest people I’ve met have invariably been curious and voracious readers.

4. What person, book, or article has been most influential on your thinking?
By far the most influential person in my life is my mother. She has never traveled to the Middle East and has little interest in Yemen or foreign policy, but she shaped how I think and how I view the world.

5. What was the last book you finished?
The last book I finished was Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. I read a lot of fiction—probably 70 percent of what I read are novels or short stories – and I’m a huge fan of good spy novels, and so after reading an excerpt in the New Yorker I couldn’t wait to pick up McEwan’s latest. It was great for two hundred pages, but the end frustrated and disappointed me in the way that the end of Amsterdam left me unsatisfied. But that book won the Booker prize, so I may be in the minority here.

6. What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?
For me it is the way that the United States tends to overreact to security threats. I think this tendency carries within it very dangerous seeds. They might not come to fruition, but this is an American reflex that if not corrected could eventually lead to serious consequences.

7. What is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?
There are a lot. But if I had to pick just one it would be the certainty I hear from so many experts in Washington, DC, that the next national security threat will come from Asia.

8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?
I think it is the way that current global environment is structured. A few years ago, Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote an interesting book called The Upside of Down. One of the examples he used was the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906. He made the point that outside help managed to offset the losses, but I’m not sure that the current world functions the same way.

9. What would you research if given two years and unlimited resources?
I would sit down to write the book that is currently working at the edges of my mind.

10. Why should anyone read yet another book on al-Qaeda?
There have been several good books on al-Qaeda and the Middle East over the past decade, but many of these are more about the United States in Iraq or the United States in Afghanistan than they are about these places and the people that inhabit them.

The Last Refuge tells the other side of this story, illustrating the rise, fall and ultimate resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen. It tells the stories of the men the United States is fighting abroad and how the United States is going to fight these wars of the future. It is less about policies than personalities.

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  • Posted by Don Bacon

    In a recent NPR interview Johnsen dissed the government
    “[T]he Achilles’ heel for the United States in Yemen is that too often it just doesn’t know what’s taking place on the ground. The CIA doesn’t know what’s taking place, it doesn’t know who is in a particular car, it doesn’t know who is really a member of al-Qaida. The State Department and diplomats, they’re very, very good, very talented people and they tend to know a lot about Yemen but, as we’ve seen, there are very real security concerns, and the regional security officers often limit their movement and so they can’t get out in the country and find out what’s taking place. … So both the CIA and policymakers in Washington tend to be operating more on assumptions than on hard facts.”

    Johnsen also dissed John Brennan in an op-ed, so Brennan struck back, employing an ex-employee Stephanie Speirs, director for Yemen at the National Security Council 2011-12, to write a letter published in the NYTimes:
    “I disagree with Gregory D. Johnsen’s characterization of United States policy toward Yemen and the man who leads it, John O. Brennan (“The Wrong Man for the C.I.A.,” Op-Ed, Nov. 20).”

    Is Speirs qualified to criticize Johnsen?

    Stephanie Speirs spent two years working on Middle East issues at the White House National Security Council, most recently overseeing US policy in Yemen during a tumultuous period of political transition and security challenges. Prior to the NSC, she worked on immigration issues for the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and managed field operations in seven states for the Obama presidential campaign. She attended Yale University, during which she studied and worked in Brazil, Italy, Korea, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Croatia.

    Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. At the moment, he is a Fulbright-Hays Fellow in Egypt, working on Yemen. He has written for Newsweek, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, and The Boston Globe. (A partial list of publications is now available.) He has also held multiple fellowships from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and was awarded the David R. Schweisberg Memorial Scholarship from the Overseas Press Club in 2006. Johnsen has also advised and consulted for a variety of different organizations and has testified before Congress as an expert witness. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID’s conflict assessment team for Yemen. He has appeared on CNN, PBS’ NEWSHOUR, the Charlie Rose Show, BBC, NPR, al-Jazeera English and al-Hurra discussing Yemen and is often quoted in media outlets like the NY Times, the Washington Post and others. In 2001 and 2002 he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan. He holds a BA in History (honors) from Hastings College and an MA in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona.

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