The White House is going to have to try a lot harder than another terror threat. Even as the international media chronicles the downfall of “terror” as a means of denying liberty, Washington continues to wield al-Qaeda as a main reason why democracy should slow down into an “orderly transition.” In Libya, rebel territory may become, in the ultimate nightmare, “another Somalia.” And apparently regime change puts U.S. citizens at risk in Yemen. Can’t have that either.
The revolution can wait.
Last Friday opened like any of the last three Fridays in Yemen - with protesters demanding the exit of 32-year President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh had just issued a proposal on Saba News Agency, the state media, outlining “an end to the crisis.” However it excluded previous reports of a one-year deadline for his resignation, an omission his spokesman formally confirmed less than 10 hours later. Around the same time, Yemeni troops opened fire on Houthi protesters in the north. The government initially denied the claims before accusing gunmen of attacking a military post, adding that no protesters were around.
That was good enough for Washington. Having remained relatively silent for three weeks - as if closing its eyes and wishing Yemen away - the State Department was forced to address the massing protests and escalation in government violence. Philip Crowley refuted a “presumptuous” reporter who questioned Saleh’s eroding position, saying, “The president solidly remains the president of Yemen. He has, in fact, opened up a dialogue with his opposition... This is exactly the kind of give-and-take that we believe is necessary so that governments can be seen as responding to the will of their people.”
As for rising violence, it “needs to stop.”
Fast forward two days and Americans have been advised to evacuate Yemen, its threat level now "extremely high due to terrorist activities and civil unrest.” In between, protests continued to swell as the mainstream opposition denied Saleh’s offer for dialogue. Persistent attacks in the north, central capital, and in the Southern Movement’s stronghold of Aden expose Saleh’s credibility, already on life-support, as totally hollow. Few believe their “president” when “unity” has become a codeword for crackdown.
Not surprisingly, Yemen’s youthful protesters want their dictator gone and will figure out what comes next afterward. And Saleh isn’t leaving the rest of Yemen’s opposition, divided as it is, much of a choice in resisting him. Already trapped in an insecure life, they have no security concerns. Where Saleh and Washington see a “mutual security threat,” protesters see political representation and economic opportunity.
But Yemen wasn’t doing OK on Friday and suddenly melting down on Sunday. Rather, this new warning appears to be setting up the Obama administration's next excuse: that its non-existence response to Yemen, as in Libya, is due to the safety of U.S. citizens. No argument would be cheaper; Washington simply doesn’t want to see Saleh fall. The U.S. embassy’s warning is particularly emblematic of a wider problem: “Should a crisis occur, evacuation options from Yemen would be extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and other security concerns.”
This hapless “evacuation” represents U.S. policy as a whole: militarily one-sided, constrained by supporting an unpopular ruler, and isolated from the people. That’s a far cry from securing U.S. citizens. Never will America win a counterinsurgency against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with its current strategy.
Consequently, America's presence and blind support for Saleh has enabled AQAP's growth to its current point.
Except terror threats continue to be applied on multiple levels; note how the State Department warns of “terrorist activities" before civil unrest. Washington has spent most of its energy in Yemen hooking AQAP into the country’s popular unrest, claiming it may “take advantage” by committing an unspecified variety of crimes. This possibility that cannot be ruled out, yet U.S. officials frequently make the link and simultaneously ignore Yemen’s genuine democratic movement.
They seem to be willing a tragic connection.
In regards to U.S. citizens, AQAP’s attacks usually occur far from populated areas and target military officials. This new threat is based on the killings of two Colonels in Marib province, 110 miles from the capital of Sana’a. What U.S. citizen is out here? And why is Washington delaying the revolution for a few people if so?
AQAP’s threat is further transposed to the macro level, where the White House and Pentagon’s response fundamentally differs between Libya and Yemen. Whereas Gaddafi’s self-created chaos must be jettisoned, Saleh must remain because of the chaos his vacuum would generate. This argument is a rehashed excuse of the Muslim Brotherhood. And while the possibility of civil war cannot be discounted, Saleh’s use as a tribal keystone has already expired.
Once Obama copies Libya’s script over to Yemen, he will implicate himself deeper in the reality that America lacks a response to Yemen. That’s why his administration remains silently inactive, along with the sad truth that it favors the conclusion of Saleh’s term in 2013.
Washington can only watch the revolution unfold as it does everything possible to stop it.