If one had visited Mars for the last six months, returned on Tuesday, and headed straight for Washington, they may be tempted to see a flowering expression of U.S. foreign policy. Speaking to the Gala Dinner celebrating the 8th U.S.-Islamic World Forum, it’s fair to say that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit the rhetorical zone. Praising courageous Muslims for thawing the “long Arab winter,” Clinton also reiterated America’s staunch support for pro-democracy movements and the “real opportunity” for “lasting change.”
Everything sounded great - on paper. But foreign policy isn’t played on paper and we haven’t just returned from space. Clinton entered a zone where she would say anything, regardless of its veracity, and anyone who believes her sweet words should check to see whether they’re trapped in a cave.
Last month we analyzed the fallout from Clinton’s non-comments during the Raymond David episode, fallout that she magnified in a single moment by refusing to speak on his outcome. Despite the incongruity between Clinton’s sunny outlook and the harsher reality unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, a similar divergence occurred in her speech at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. A dose of humility could have transformed the speech into a reset of U.S. policy.
Instead, Clinton arrogantly attempted to rewrite the White House’s response to such a pivotal moment in history: “the Obama Administration began to reorient U.S. foreign policy in the region and around the world from our first days in office. We put partnerships with people, not just governments, at the center of our efforts. The Administration moved quickly to respond to recent events and to affirm the principles that guide our approach.”
Whether in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria or Yemen, protesters seem unified over the Obama administration’s slow response. When Clinton speaks of “renewed pursuit of comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” Israelis and Palestinians wonder where the last two years went under Obama. Speaking of an unsustainable status quo, one that Washington has reinforced through its bias relationship with Israel, Clinton then reveals her true motive. Although the decrepit state of U.S.-mediated negotiations is largely responsible for driving the Palestinians to the UN, the Secretary warns, “Neither Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state nor the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be secured without a negotiated two-state solution.”
Not that anyone doesn’t expect a U.S. veto on Palestinian statehood.
Clinton repeatedly tries to erase the double-standard that now shines brighter under the glare of revolution. “We understand that a one-sized-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense in such a diverse region at such a fluid time,” she says, when this expedient reaction is a main criticism of the administration. Her statement preemptively segues into Bahrain, a “long-time ally” where “we have raised our concerns publicly and directly with Bahraini officials and we will continue to do so.”
Sandwiched right between Bahrain and Syria rests Yemen, where Clinton claims, “The United States also strongly supports the people of Yemen in their quest for greater opportunity, their pursuit of political and economic reform that will meet their aspirations. President Saleh needs to resolve the political impasse with the opposition so that meaningful political change can take place in the near term in an orderly, peaceful manner.”
Triumphantly declaring, “Today’s new generation of young people rejects these false narratives,” she sounds a little too confident that they won’t reject her own.
After staying off Yemen’s grid for as long as possible, Clinton is ironically the only U.S. official now addressing its uprising. Each week’s events suggest that White House cannot avoid the country, where U.S. forces have trained Yemeni teams to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yet Obama's cabinet manages to avoid this particular spotlight with startling success. “Too quiet” diplomacy is now accepted even in the U.S. mainstream media, itself complicit in this very silence.
Consider the last three days alone. Last Friday the State Department released a statement welcoming Yemeni President Ali Abdullah’s efforts to “peacefully” transfer power. A blood-soaked weekend ensued after Saleh at first rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s plan to resign, then responded with a positive ambiguity that Yemenis have grown naturally suspicious of. Instead of condemning these events, Clinton repeated the State Department’s lines on Monday. Even though violence continues to greet Yemeni protesters as Saleh stalls for time, neither the White House nor State Department have addressed the country this week. They have, however, found time for Egypt, Libya, and Syria.
This is why Yemen draws our focus - it’s the weakest link that people don’t want to talk about.
Obama himself hasn’t spoken out since the March 18th sniping incident, when he called for “those responsible to be held accountable.” Before then he called Saleh in early February to laud his reforms and press him on AQAP. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates jumped in two weeks ago, sounded the terror alarm, and hasn’t been heard since. The last White House statement on Yemen was issued April 6th. Since then two statements on Syria have been released, including a lengthy reprimand from Obama himself.
Only four statements on Yemen’s violence have been released since early February, Syria’s total in the last three weeks. Additionally, the White House released a statement days after Saleh accused it of orchestrating a conspiracy, in which counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan welcomed Saleh’s dialogue and ordered Yemenis to pursue it. That was over a month ago, and by then most Yemenis had already lost all trust in Saleh.
Even less attention has been devoted to Bahrain (only two warnings in two+ months), in contrast to numerous statements on Iran’s demonstrations. None of this propaganda is any coincidence; a gravitational force is warping U.S. attention away from its dying allies and towards its dying enemies. Clinton reveals this duality in the same sentence: “we start from the understanding that America’s core interests and values have not changed, including our commitment to promote human rights, resolve long-standing conflicts, counter Iran’s threats, and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.”
Bahrainis currently watch American interests supersede its values. Yemenis have witnessed how America’s commitment to human rights collided with its effort to defeat AQAP - and how Washington is losing on both fronts.
At least Clinton finishes with consistency. Pompous to the end, the Secretary vows, “Going forward, the United States will be guided by careful consideration of all the circumstances on the ground and by our consistent values and interests, but also by something else: We believe in this region.”
She claims that people “will not accept the status quo.” And she’s right, they won’t accept a status quo that Washington (and Saudi Arabia) continues to force on them, whether in Egypt, Bahrain or Yemen. It’s why the Libyan opposition rejects any ceasefire without Gaddafi’s exit.
Although U.S. foreign policy generally appears and often is a random mess, the entirety of Clinton’s statements are coldly calculated to black out Washington’s dilemmas. Its spotlight still shines unequally upon the Middle East, a trend set to continue as Obama prepares a new speech to the Muslim world. As the White House supports "reform" in friendly states and regime change in unfriendly ones, Clinton declares of al-Qaeda’s propaganda, “Their claims to speak for the dispossessed and downtrodden have never rung so hollow.”
Someone should pass her a mirror.