December 18, 2010

U.S. Policy Lost in Yemen

Jeffrey Feltman recently gathered Arab reporters to inform them of the damage caused by WikiLeaks - what he called “an attack on the international community.” Surely they hadn’t heard this before.

But Washington was firing all guns to smash WikiLeaks’ stubborn faucet, and that included the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Feltman, America’s ambassador to Lebanon under George Bush, condemned WikiLeaks for obstructing diplomacy to resolve global crises, and worried that information could be used to foment strife in Lebanon. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal’s plan to organize a regional militia against Hezbollah, for instance.

Now, far off in Yemen (technically under his jurisdiction), Feltman claims that WikiLeaks, while "embarrassing," had no effect on U.S.-Yemeni relations.

Since when has hypocrisy stopped a war?

Feltman is the latest of many U.S. officials to drop by Sana’a - a Congressional delegation is due to arrive shortly - and came bearing the same predictable message. While security cooperation is self-evident, Washington holds Yemen’s political and economic progress as its main focus to stabilizing the country. U.S. ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein has consistently preached this message during his first months on the job, as has State counter-terrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin.

To their credit State officials are doing what they can to soften Yemen’s overpowering military narrative. As Feltman reviewed February’s “Friends of Yemen” meeting in Riyadh with Abdul-Karim al-Arhabi, Yemen’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Feierstein held court with coffee representatives at the Second International Conference. One of brewed coffee’s first origins - possibly the first - government officials and investors hope to organize a more efficient, lucrative market to improve Yemen’s ailing economy.

Sana'a also just received a fat international check to relieve its $1.4 billion deficit - $370 million from the IMF, $200 million from the Arab Monetary Fund, and $70 million from the World Bank.

Elsewhere Feierstein convened with Minister of Justice Ghazi al-Aghbari, but this time he decided to lay it on extra thick. Too thick. Days after President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) passed a controversial reform to Yemen’s election law, Feierstein declared that Yemen’s democratic system was headed in the right direction. Yemen’s parliamentary opposition condemned the move as a formal end to the sputtering national dialogue.

The GPC reacted to threats of an opposition boycott by announcing that April's election will go ahead as planned. Shades of Egypt, one of many red flags in Yemen.

U.S. State Department officials come bearing false hope without sound policy from above. Since December 2009, when the war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) exploded, the obsession and publication over U.S. military activity has nullified their politico-economic theme. Although inter-agency coordination between State and Defense appears strong, the two groups continue to operate on separate pages.

The White House has ignored how Yemen's political crisis affects its military situation, while Pentagon officials impatiently overlook Yemen's political and economic dimensions.

"Our work with the Yemeni government on security issues is done with the permission, coordination, request of the Yemeni government," Feltman said in an attempt to dispel the puppet image surrounding U.S.-Yemeni relations.

Technically he's correct; as WikiLeaks revealed, Saleh did give the green light to General David Petraeus. However this logic makes for horrible counterinsurgency.

According to informal polling
by Hakim Almasmari, editor-in-chief of The Yemen Post, “Yemenis were not shocked that high ranking officials openly lied to parliament. They were not shocked that Saleh gave the U.S. open access to Yemen’s airspace. They were not shocked that Saleh joked about allowing good whiskey to enter Yemen.”

During his speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an ironic venue to make war, White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan vainly explained, “I told President Saleh that it was most unfortunate that these releases would be taking place and that I hoped that they would not cause problems for him, the Yemeni Government, or the Yemeni people.”

Did "hearts and minds" already go of fashion in Washington? Yemen has no national agenda, Almasmari told Al Jazeera, so people are resigned to “follow others agendas. That is the policy of life.”

Yemenis were the least shocked when Saleh’s meeting with Petraeus burst into view. They suspected U.S. air-strikes from December 2009 onward, assuming the opposite of what the government told them. For this reason, apparently, U.S. and Yemeni officials believe that WikiLeaks hasn't damaged their security arrangement - counter-terrorist training, weapons and transport upgrades, and potential bases to put them to use.

But WikiLeaks has impacted the fourth-generation battlefield America expects to fight on. WikiLeaks didn't obstruct crisis resolution in Yemen - it revealed Washington's obstruction.

First, WikiLeaks conclusively affirmed that Washington and Sana’a are double-dealing and cannot be trusted in anything they say. Yemeni officials have futility argued that WikiLeaks' contents were manufactured, as few believed them before the latest scandal. Almasmari claims that Yemenis expect more leaks to follow, while officials privately complain that their public image has tanked.

They also resent Washington’s beck and call, and Almasmari reports that high-ranking officials will now censor “every word” when speaking with U.S. diplomats. Brennan claims this to be the, “hallmark of true friendship. Not telling the other what they want to hear, but telling the other what they need to hear."

Friendship, American style: propping up an unpopular regime.

The pre-existing trust deficits between Sana’a and Washington, and between the Saleh government and Yemenis, have ripped open that much wider. Security cooperation won't be affected since both need each other too much and possess few alternatives. But WikiLeaks has traumatized the environment U.S.-trained counter-terrorism units wish to enter, and maybe U.S. Forces themselves.

al-Qaeda seems to have a nose for CIA agents, as the recent attack on a U.S. embassy vehicle in Sana’a nearly killed four of them.

The larger story out of WikiLeaks, which received no attention in The Washington Post's report on Feltman, perverts his testimony to a higher level. Several cables authored by the former Yemeni ambassador, Stephen Seche, revealed that Saleh diverted U.S. military aid to fight the Houthi tribe in the north. Another cable details Houthi accounts of U.S. air attacks, as well as U.S. ammunition supplied to Saudi Arabia and subsequently used on the Houthis.

Seche noted that Washington paid no real attention in its quest to escalate Yemen's war - not exactly the democratic progress hailed by Feltman and Feierstein. Washington will double its 2011 military aid to $250 million if all goes as planned.

Then there’s Feltman himself
. A player in the Middle East since the Clinton administration, Feltman was integral to Bush’s foreign policy in the region and his own cables were considered lively reading. Naturally President Barack Obama tapped him to lead his campaign's Jewish outreach, keeping him on as an Israeli adviser. The prevalence of Jewish officials and corresponding absence of Muslims working U.S. policy in the Middle East is a driving force of instability in the region, and Feltman is a little far from home to be tampering in Yemen.

Not that many Houthis will notice his visit, but they do have an information unit and regularly blame America and Israel for their plight, accusing intelligence services of funding Saleh and AQAP’s war against them. Saudi Arabia and AQAP similarly accuse Iran of funding the Houthis' insurgency.

A convenient time, it would seem, for Feltman to emerge.

U.S. officials would like us to believe that Yemeni policy, while suffering the occasional hiccup, is unfolding as designed. Security and political development supposedly go hand in hand. Unfortunately U.S. policy is more like a chicken without a head, and military escalation continues to subvert political progress. A potentially explosive parliamentary election is brewing in April, one that Washington is likely to side-step.

And U.S. lies flow like Niagara Falls, reinforcing the trust barrier between Yemen's government and people.

With counter-terrorism substituted for genuine counterinsurgency, Yemeni and U.S. forces will kill their share of AQAP fighters in the years ahead. Yet scarce hope exists for the country’s overall stability so long as military aid exceeds humanitarian aid, as social divisions are ignored to create new insecurity. If Yemen’s political body continues to be held hostage to Washington’s military demands, U.S. policy will remain lost in the Arabian Peninsula.

[Note: This analysis was completed Thursday in anticipation for the White House’s side-explanation on Yemen. Counter-terrorism chief John Brennan did not disappoint Friday when he spoke to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now the most operationally active node of the al Qaeda network.”


  1. That's quite a broad and deep analysis. Its a complicated country, most people miss one part or another.

  2. And these events are just from the last few days. Who knows about next week.