The latest headlines out of Yemen claim that President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reversed position and, after initially signaling a willingness to resign, will not leave power before a minimum of 60 days. Subsequent statements from his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), have him finishing his term until 2013, and Saleh further declared that no more “concessions” will be offered.
Few sincere observers should be surprised by today’s events after days (and years) of flip flopping.
However Washington has fully endorsed Saleh’s back-and-forth since early February, at the time panicking over the loss of multiple “allies,” and the White House has welcomes his every “concessions.” Meanwhile the opposition is urged to conclude their revolution through negotiation rather than demonstrations.
U.S. officials admit off record that Saleh is on his way out. And when asked what he would do in Yemen, Senator John McCain responded directly from the White House’s own script: “I have to be honest. I don’t know what we do exactly about Yemen, except that obviously the president has to step down, as he has agreed to do so.”
But judging by Saleh’s demands and behavior over the last five days, he never appeared ready to accept his resignation. His defiance alone further alienated the opposition, slandered as criminals and drug dealers out to “rip Yemen apart.” Yemen's youth has been ordered to abandon the political opposition.
Thus U.S. support for his dialogue is exposed as that much more duplicitous.
U.S. officials like to tell reporters that America hasn’t chosen any side in Yemen. Although seemingly oblivious to the reality that taking no side supports Saleh by default, their fence-sitting is no random product of an uncontrollable crisis. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates caused alarm on Wednesday by admitting the White House lacks a detailed contingency for post-Saleh Yemen. As a result the Obama administration has acted in unison with his stall tactics.
Mirroring the case of Hosni Mubarak, Washington did possess a strategy to extend his flame before being snuffed out completely.
Sunday had its moments of flip flopping. Telling Al-Arabiya he would step down "within a few hours" if his opponents guarantee a "dignified departure,” Saleh shifted blame to the opposition and their primary demand: his immediate removal from power along with his family. Bent on remaining an integral political actor in Yemen even if removed from office, Saleh has motioned his General People’s Party (GPC) to begin forming a new government and constitution based on his “reforms.”
He also vowed to remain in charge of the GPC even if he resigns, and referenced Mubarak’s end by saying he isn’t “looking for a home in Jeddah or Paris.” Ignoring his self-induced collapse, Saleh issued his time-tested warning that Yemen is a "time bomb,” one that could descend into “civil war like Somalia.” Pure U.S. consumption, and why not when the Obama administration continues to play along?
The White House has shown itself resilient in denying updates on Yemen. For weeks we believed it couldn’t ignore Yemen’s revolution, only to repeatedly predict wrong. High level officials from President Barack Obama on down remain silent, giving the press little to run with, and tiny bites of information from press officials are intentionally buried to minimize expose. U.S. policy has refused to change throughout the crisis: the government must address the peoples' demands, the people must accept Saleh’s offer for dialogue, and both sides must refrain from violence.
Whether the White House can maintain this contradictory policy after Saleh’s reinforced hardline doesn’t seem possible - although it will try.
Asked by ABC News about his previous comments, Gates replied in the shallowest detail, “Well, I think it is a real concern, because the most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaida – al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – operates out of Yemen. And we have had a lot of counter-terrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services. So if that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we’ll face some additional challenges out of Yemen. There’s no question about it. It’s a real problem.”
Given that this one paragraph represents the White House’s sole statement on Sunday, Gates’s words crudely translate to: “We do not care about Yemenis’ demands.” Such a statement was actually posted on the U.S. Embassy website, the single piece of Yemeni news to be found amongst Libya’s hyper-focus.
Gates managed to keep quiet throughout Yemen’s initial violence, hiding behind Libya and finally breaking silence earlier this week. But once he did start talking, Gates has only emphasized the military component of Yemen, repeating Saleh’s cooperation and reinforcing the terror threat. Just because Gates heads the Pentagon doesn’t mean he should limit himself to military topics. In fact, because Yemen’s revolution and al-Qaeda’s insurgency both represent fourth-generation warfare (4GW), America’s military chief should be constantly highlighting non-military areas in Yemen.
Especially when the White House and State Department haven't; no Yemeni information is available on either website.
The result is a militarized response to an overly militarized policy - and counter-productivity. Saleh and Gates, two shadow masters with a knack for duplicity, are digging their hole together. Beyond the realistic threat of AQAP, U.S. officials (and thus the media) repeatedly emphasize the negative in Yemen in order to spread fear of Saleh’s departure. If any effort was put into the positive side of Saleh’s resignation, the impression of a new Yemen would be drastically altered.
But Yemen is “dark territory,” not a beacon of light to Washington, and Saleh’s replacement is necessarily weaker and more dangerous. Such a statement aims to portray his government as strong - so why is it near collapse?
Saleh’s ill treatment of Yemenis is a separate issue; he hasn’t fully cooperated with Washington either. U.S. officials looking for more responsiveness and accountability weren’t pleased with his track record before the revolution began. They considered him a necessary evil. Many Yemenis and international observers also believe that Saleh overplays AQAP’s threat, and pursues a modest level of action designed to extend its life. When the revolution did spark, AQAP had already positioned itself to capitalize on the military vacuum.
In the meantime Saleh deploys U.S. weapons on the Houthis, Southern Movement, and oppositional tribes, then hides under Washington’s political cover to escape international criticism. The widespread belief in Yemen is that both Saleh and America hyped the threat of AQAP for too long. Washington’s own hands are stuck in Gates’s “real problem.” U.S. policy felt, and apparently still feels, more comfortable with an ineffective autocrat than an inexperienced democracy.
“'I actually fear that Saleh is using it as a card in order to hang on to power and the use of violence against his own people,” Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s defected general, said on Sunday. “Saleh has largely contributed to the presence of terrorism in Yemen as he played with it as a political tactic.”
Sounds too familiar in Washington.
The question is stuck on repeat in America and Yemen alike: “what comes next?” But while Yemen’s opposition organizes its demands as quickly as possible, the Obama administration refuses to publicize its own views in fear of agitating Saleh. U.S. officials anticipate destabilization after a revolution as if order is automatically supposed to flow. Yet the chaos of a revolution offers no reason to stop it.
Now flip the argument around. What does Washington expect? Since it continues to urge the opposition to work with Saleh, U.S. policy equates to a transitional period overseen by him. Chaos will be the inevitable outcome. If another policy does exist, no one outside the White House and Pentagon know of it.
And it doesn’t do Yemenis any good in the shadows.