White House Defends Embattled Counterterrorism Strategy

Denis McDonough endorses White House plans as Yemen slides into chaos

Denis McDonough / AP
January 25, 2015

As chaos in Yemen continued to escalate, Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff,  appeared on all five major talk shows on Sunday to defend the administration’s counterterrorism efforts in the region.

"I think it's very important to recognize that governance in Yemen has always been difficult," McDonough said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

"We will continue to press actors on the ground including today to make decisions transparently pursuant to a political agreement so that we can work with them to keep on the offensive against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But we can't be responsible for every government in the region. We have to make sure that they're doing that themselves."

Yemen’s U.S.-backed President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, resigned last week shortly after striking a deal that would give the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels more power. The country is home to the terror cell al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and some officials say the ongoing chaos has already hampered the United States’ ability to carryout counterterrorism operations against the group.

It appeared to be a dramatic change in a nation that the president pointed to as evidence of his successful counterterrorism strategy just four months ago, but McDonough maintained that the administration was not "surprised that this government collapsed."

Others disagreed, including Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.),who said that what’s occurring in Yemen suggests that the administration’s counterterrorism strategy is failing and needs to change.

"There is no strategy," McCain told CBS. "It is delusional for [the administration] to think that what they’re doing is succeeding."

Success is unlikely unless the United States increases its presence in Yemen, McCain said.

"I know that’s a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow, but it doesn’t mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means Special Forces. It means intelligence, and it means other capabilities."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) agreed with McCain, at least in part, and said that "some Special Operations" were needed on the ground.