December 31, 2010

New Year's Information Vacuum: U.S. Concerned in Yemen

At least something went out by Friday’s deadline. Yemen’s government has already pushed onward with April’s parliamentary election, postponed in February 2009 in order for the government to institute political reforms. Next came an amendment to compose next April’s election commission from judges instead of party representatives. Both moves met resistance and boycott threats from the opposition, who accuses Sana’a of skipping the reform promised in 2009.

Now the latest reports have put a spook in the White House. According to local media, Yemen plans to hold a parliamentary vote on Saturday to eliminate the limit of two consecutive terms as president, offering the chance of permanent rule to President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The U.S. State Department quickly released a statement from spokesman Mark Toner:
“The United States has seen reports regarding the apparent decision by Yemen’s ruling General People’s Conference to vote on a package of Constitutional reforms at a parliamentary session on Saturday, January 1. Previously, we consistently welcomed and supported the commitments of both the government and the opposition to address issues related to Constitutional reforms and other election reforms through the National Dialogue. We continue to believe that the interests of the Yemeni people will be best served through that process of negotiations. In that regard, we welcome reports that President Saleh has decided to appoint a new team from the ruling party to re-engage with the opposition in a new effort to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion. For that reason, we urgently call on all parties to delay parliamentary action and to return to the negotiating table to reach an agreement that will be welcomed by the Yemeni people as well as Yemen’s friends.”
We won’t go so far as to say this statement is worth less than the speck of memory to display it onscreen. Something is better than nothing, and the power of the State’s response cannot be lost in its feebleness. Toner’s statement breaks many rules of successful information warfare, all irrelevant when it comes to Saleh. He surely heard the message.

But will most Americans or Yemenis?

The State Department wouldn’t express its concern if it didn’t want people to hear; getting that message out is half the battle in fourth-generation warfare. But releasing a statement on Friday night - New Year's Eve of all days - and into the weekend is classic information exile. Perhaps the White House didn’t know of Yemen’s parliamentary schedule until today, but any statements are quickly lost in the weekend’s void.

Some Yemenis celebrate New Years too.

Furthermore, the White House’s level of concern once again fails to match the speaker. While parliament’s intentions remain unknown, making a preliminary statement permissible, major U.S. officials consistently avoid Yemen by deferring to spokespeople and under-officials. Though Washington’s establishment has equated Yemen’s danger to Pakistan, neither President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have much to say publicly.

This schism has contributed to America’s disconnection with the Yemeni people, who hear military speak from the Pentagon’s highest levels and relatively little of the White House’s concern for political and economic reform. Obama has no desire to touch Yemen personally, preferring to wield his influence with Saleh in private. Yet this trade-off loses the average Yemeni.

WikiLeaks simply magnified the gap.

Maybe the White House is saving its ammunition for April 27th, fearful of rocking the boat too much. Another party member told AFP the proposed amendment would be submitted to a referendum rather than a parliamentary vote, which would be held simultaneously with parliamentary elections. Saleh has also promised to approve international monitors, so a soft approach may yield more than a hard line.

We worry, though, that this policy could encourage Saleh and his political allies to continue about their “reforms,” which quickly escalated from the electoral commission to presidential terms. The dynamic between Washington and Sana’a is unstable enough, and though relying deeply on the other, the friction between Saleh and Yemenis has put a dagger in the heart of any real counterinsurgency effort.

The time to connect with Yemenis is before April, not after. Washington has waited too long as it is.


  1. It seems that Washington is always reacting instead of acting.
    They are one step behind in all of their foreign policies.

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