January 12, 2011

Clinton’s Vision of Yemen: United in Division?

Foreign journalists are often barred from covering protests in Yemen's restive south.

Hillary Clinton knew she flew in with a target on her back.

Not just from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose presence in Yemen’s capital forced the Secretary of State to arrive unannounced, but from Yemeni and international critics of U.S. policy. Despite increases in U.S. and foreign aid and a more concerted emphasis on Yemen’s non-military needs, U.S. strategy in Yemen continues to suffer from military burnout.

So when President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC) moved to eliminate presidential term limits earlier this month, Washington had no choice except to push back. First it tried to do so softly; with Yemen’s political opposition boycotting the motion, a New Years’ Eve release from the State Department pleaded for both sides to negotiate April’s election terms. But even this statement was quickly condemned by the GPC “as interference.”

It also energized its actions. Claiming the vote remains informal, parliament went ahead and preliminarily approved the GPC’s amendments, as if to prove it wouldn’t bow to America.

Aware that backing down would feed the many critics of U.S. policy in Yemen, Clinton took the opportunity to meet with its political opposition. She would have been hacked to pieces for avoiding Yemen’s political gridlock, a mistake that could bury U.S. counterinsurgency efforts. Meeting with Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) leaders for more than two hours of closed door talks, Clinton didn’t change much from the State Department’s original position.

Highlighting the government and opposition’s “commitment to a national dialogue,” Clinton informed JMP officials that, “we want to see that dialogue continue. We want to see both the president and the opposition agree on how to hold parliamentary elections that will be fair and legitimate and inclusive. And we’ll be promoting that.”

A perfect COIN message. Now who wouldn’t want to hear that?

"Without national agreements on key points, there will be no solution to the country's problems, and Clinton understood that,” said Hasan Zaid, the JMP’s general-secretary. “We are confident to say that the JMP will not enter elections until the ruling party agrees to the terms we agreed on previously. It seems to me that pressure was put on the government to change some of its stances, and will most likely return to the dialogue table, and this time with the Americans observing."

One can easily understand Zaid’s enthusiasm. He might also be the only Yemeni taking the shifty Secretary at face value.

"Mrs. Clinton showed strong support for the opposition and clearly mentioned the need for change. The US support for political reforms is respected by the opposition, and we feel that this is a positive step the US government. International pressure needs to be put on the Yemeni government and Clinton's visit is a step in the right direction."

Zaid’s optimism sounds a little disingenuous though. Perhaps he sincerely trusts in Clinton’s - and thus America’s - “understanding” over Saleh’s consolidation of power. Or maybe Zaid is simply using Clinton just as she may be using the JMP. The GPC’s measures would already be chiseled in stone without U.S. opposition; officials admitted to adding extra seats for women just to placate the international community.

So Clinton’s true feelings are somewhat irrelevant when it comes to the JMP’s political campaign against the government. The marginalized JMP will take every bit of help it can get, potentially sinking or swimming on Washington’s response.

However false promises, over time, create a time bomb rather than stability. Clinton has promised and failed to deliver “national dialogues and reforms” in places like Pakistan and Palestine, with great consequence. And her argument that U.S. humanitarian aid now equals military aid, though a step in the right direction, remains flawed. In counterinsurgency, non-military aid must exceed military support in order for that support to yield permanent results.

Counter-terrorism leads through the military, counterinsurgency through non-military means.

“To that end we have rebalanced our aid package so that it is not so disproportionately consisting of the funding necessary on the counter-terrorism agenda, but also includes these other priorities,” she told reporters. “The economic development of Yemen is something that is at the heart of the Friends of Yemen process which we’ve participated in.”

But when asked which issues were most discussed between Clinton and Saleh, a “senior” White House official responded, "I don't think we can overemphasize the counter-terrorism side." If America would assist Yemen regardless of al-Qaeda’s presence, as White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan declared at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, why can’t U.S. officials avoid counter-terrorism for once?

With increased U.S. attention already provoking a local backlash and officials rolling out a “concerned” public policy, Washington cannot afford to back down from Saleh’s latest power grab. If mishandled April’s election could spawn pandemonium across Yemen’s social divisions. The Pentagon already let slip helicopter and troop re-allocations to the northern Houthis and southern secessionists, as U.S. policy is conditioned on Saleh’s survival. Considering the GPC's push-back against U.S. intervention, going soft on term limits remains a possibility.

The more overriding concern, though, stems from Clinton’s overt interference in Yemeni politics. But unlike the State Department’s plea to debate constitutional amendments within a national dialogue, Clinton’s comments probably won’t draw rebuke from the GPC. Her stature and personal visit already providing a shield, this time Clinton gave the Saleh government exactly what it wanted to hear.

Rather than pull Yemen together, she appears to have sacrificed its wider opposition for unflinching support from Sana’a.

“We are committed to a balanced approach toward Yemen which includes social, economic, political assistance, of a type intended to try to deal with the many difficulties within Yemeni society to help create an inclusive political process that enables the many different elements within Yemen to cooperate peacefully within a unified, stable, democratic Yemen, help to deal with some of the long-term problems such as the declining oil production and the disappearing water supply.”

Such a statement sounds wonderful - to the proponents of a “unified” Yemen. Whether Houthi rebels in the north, AQAP in the east, or the intent Southern Movement, Sana’a faces secessionist tendencies from all directions. WikiLeaks has since divulged America’s complicity in Saleh’s fight against them, sometimes intentionally, other times indirectly aware. Now, as conflict rises between the government and Southern Movement, the Obama administration has staked its final position out: a “unified” Yemen, wrapped in hope.

“With respect to constitutional reforms and legal changes,” Clinton added for emphasis, “we want to be very clear that we think there are better ways, based on what we have experienced around the world in trying to get the opposition to buy into a unified future for Yemen, and that’s what we’re going to be advocating.”

Now that the Obama administration is on record as opposing their cause, it seems doubtful that the Southern Movement will “buy” what Clinton is selling. Not when WikiLeaks has laid bare the duplicity between Washington and Saleh. And herein lies a main deficiency of Clinton’s visit: transparency. A show-woman traveling the world’s capitals, Clinton is sprinkling her idealistic humanism on top of escalating U.S. military operations. Rather than totally switch the formula, Washington hopes to coat its militarism with a glossy, altruistic shine.

Like Pakistanis and Palestinians, two peoples still awaiting the political and economic gains promised by Clinton, Yemen will see a lot more fighting and political division before experiencing the tangible benefits of U.S. aid. If they ever do. Corruption remains high (a topic Clinton didn’t address), generating perpetual concerns of how efficient foreign aid can be. As for Yemen’s political rumblings, U.S. policy is leaning more towards Egypt’s suppression than Sudan’s empowerment.

AQAP took round one in 2010, growing stronger and bolder despite escalating Yemeni and U.S. activity. Often this activity was manipulated to further AQAP’s own objectives. Now 2011 is already veering off in the same direction. If non-military aid isn’t drastically increased, and if Saleh’s political power solidifies under U.S. watch, Clinton will be reciting the same hypocritical speech in 2012. Possibly to a deeply divided Yemeni populace.

And still having to sneak in through the backdoor.

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