Barack Obama wants you to know that he’s consistent. The President’s Secretaries, officials, and spokespeople want you to know. The U.S. media wants you to know too. Who is you? Anyone believing Obama’s reaction to the Muslim world’s transformation is too slow and out of touch. In typical Goldilocks fashion, the Obama administration considers its touch to be “just right.”
“It’s your revolution,” he repeatedly declares, “not ours.”
Obama has been consistent - in his inconsistency. With Tunisia already passing in a blur, his administration struggled to unify its message in Egypt until the final days of Hosni Mubarak, then heaped praise upon a military transition that’s still mounting resistance to Egyptians' demands. Once Mubarak's fall inspired protesters in Jordan, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, and Iran, Washington began the easy task of cherry-picking which regimes to support. Traditional allies such as the Gulf States, Algeria, and Yemen went under the rug while Libya assumed the capital’s spotlight.
Libya’s revolution does exceed the military scale of other movements, but not to the point where they should be blacked out. And Obama is lethally consistent in his silence over Yemen’s crisis, where U.S. policy has sunk into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s quicksand.
So consistent is Obama that, for the first time in over a month, he publicly acknowledged Yemen’s existence. When he last spoke with Ali Abdullah Saleh, on February 3rd, Obama praised his counterpart for renouncing his intent to seek a new term after 2013. Luckily Obama qualified himself by calling for “concrete action," otherwise he would have looked completely delusional. Given that Saleh has ruled for a contentious 32 years, changed his mind to run in 1999 and 2006, and motioned parliament to eliminate term limits in January, Yemen’s opposition reacted with far less optimism. Mubarak’s fall energized its various factions and, fueled by the government’s political and violent suppression, protesters launched four straight “Friday’s of Rage" to uproot Saleh.
“I’m in constant contact with leaders throughout the Middle East,” Obama now tells reporters on Friday’s Day of No Return, “and I’ve had a fairly consistent message to all of them: Number one, the United States believes in the right of peaceful protests and the ability of ordinary people to express their grievances to their government. And we oppose the use of violence in response to peaceful protesters. So that’s one clear message that we’ve try to send.”
Want to hear America’s "other" message to Yemenis from its ambassador? Gerald Feierstein didn’t stutter in a recent interview to the state-run magazine al-Syasiah: "We've been clear in saying we don't believe that the demonstrations are the place where Yemen's problems will be solved. We think the problems have to be resolved through this process of dialogue and negotiations.”
Washington and a subservient U.S. media have unabashedly quarantined Yemen's revolution over the last two months. The cover-up is so consistent and systematic that it leaves little to the imagination. At an elementary level, Yemen sees a disproportionally low number of reports emerging from the Western media, aided in part by Libya’s uprising. And after the White House completely ignored Wednesday’s incident at Sana’a University, where uniformed government personnel attacked protesters and medical staff, the State Department "looked into these reports" and warned both sides to exercise restraint.
Then reports of nerve gas surfaced and the State Department stopped giving briefings. One would think the mere rumor would prompt concern, but the White House kept quiet on Thursday and didn’t brief Friday. Obama, a Nobel laureate, made no mention of the attack on Friday, only a passing reference to “the young man whether he is in Sana’a or he’s in Tripoli, or she’s in Cairo or Amman.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is conveniently speaking at "Women in the World," while Defense Secretary Robert Gates busies himself in Afghanistan and Bahrain. And when National Security Adviser Tom Donilon followed Obama with a 7,000-word briefing specifically on the Middle East, neither Yemen nor Saleh were mentioned once.
The State Department didn't even issue a Tweet on Yemen, which it used to respond to Saleh’s direct condemnation of Obama. Apparently that offense didn’t warrant a response either, although the White House did exploit Saleh’s subsequent “apology” to reiterate his commitment to reform.
Funny that Saleh should mention U.S. conspiracies though. Few options exist judging by the entire circumstances in Sana’a: either the accounts of nerve gas were fabricated or an elaborate media cover-up is suppressing information. That the attack itself, in addition to wider government suppression, remains off Washington's radar offers no benefit of the doubt.
Obama has nowhere to hide in Yemen because nothing exists to begin with. His policy is a barren desert. Although his specific response ties into the larger question of how Obama should act in general, Yemen is a clear case of needing and failing to respond. Maybe he believes that Saleh’s personal attack validates his decision to stay out of the fray, but this accusation doesn’t justify a wall of silence and orders to stop protesting. Yemenis rightly believe that America destabilizes their country by unilaterally supporting Saleh, but they also want Washington to fix its mistakes.
Bad policy doesn’t suddenly excuse the need to correct it.
Libya’s counter-argument - that America should reduce its footprint or at the minimum keep static - also collapses; Washington’s escalating footprint against AQAP serves as a pillar of the Yemeni opposition’s grievances. Like their fellow Egyptians, the weapons deployed on them stand a chance of being made in the U.S.A. When Saleh unleashes violence against them, the U.S. government issues warnings to both sides and dips below the surface again. Protesters continue to be harassed, beaten, and fired upon in Sana’a and Aden as Saleh advances his latest initiative with U.S. support.
All in a day’s whiplash for Saleh, and that’s why hundreds of thousands reject one untrustworthy offer after another. Thus America is justifying erroneous policy through AQAP's threat and sacrificing the peoples' support in the process, a wholly counterproductive counterinsurgency.
There is a measure of consistency in this hypocrisy. Too much actually. The Obama administration has directed its attention to those regimes it wishes to fall, while ignoring those peoples where it needs the regime to survive. Washington speaks louder (Libya) or softer (Saudi Arabia) depending on U.S. allegiance. Then, where protests become inevitable, it advocates reform and “orderly transitions” over regime change - “reform” over “transform."
“The second message we’ve try to send is that it is in the interest of the entire region to reform itself,” Obama told reporters, "-- to reform itself both politically and economically so that the incredible talents of young people throughout that region can be tapped; so that the young man whether he is in Sanaa or he’s in Tripoli, or she’s in Cairo or Amman, that they know that if they work hard, if they are getting an education, that they have an opportunity to live a better life; that they can get a job that pays a good wage and supports their family, and that they can have the basic necessities of life, and that they have personal security and they have personal freedom.”
Yemenis, Saudis, Bahrainis, and Algerians will have none of that so long as Washington maintains its current policy.
In countries like Yemen, where Washington directly supports an oppressive regime, the White House must confront protesters' demands and legitimately remedy the situation. Instead Saleh is pushing forward with his initiative and, having expected the opposition’s rejection, will now claim he did his part. His political and tribal supporters will stamp their approval. The U.S. will welcome the development while cautioning against violence, tell Yemenis to accept Saleh’s dialogue, and order them home. This is, disturbingly, exactly how it’s going down.
"All sectors of the Yemeni opposition should respond constructively to President Saleh's call to engage in a serious dialogue to end the current impasse," John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism adviser, told Saleh on Friday. “[Brennan] also stated that a commitment by all sides to participate in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people provides an orderly path to a stronger and more prosperous nation."
Yemenis are the only people that Washington explicitly orders to stop protesting and "go inside," a shocking policy further amplified by the fact that security forces stormed protester camps on Saturday. In a pre-dawn raid, police reportedly used tear gas, hot water mixed with gas, bats and knives to disperse protesters in Sana’a. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal is reporting hundreds of wounded. This is the totalitarian response America praises, one that will spawn new hostilities. Obama hasn't remained silent on Yemen because he “gets it,” but because he doesn’t get it, and the same goes for revolution wherever it erupts to a deaf ear.
Democracy and human rights aren't so universal beneath America’s self-interest.