He talks about it all the time, so he must be laughing at the fickle nature of Washington.
Considering the groundswell for “change,” Robert Gates boarded Barack Obama’s administration with surprisingly little push-back from the Democratic base. Suddenly the inexperienced president needed an old hand to manage “orderly transitions” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and George Bush’s Defense Secretary was spun well by his advisers and mainstream U.S. media. Still eager to pursue militaristic strategies abroad, Pentagon budget cuts made him a favorite amongst liberal and conservative lawmakers alike.
Gates has freely expressed approval for a mission extension in Iraq if offered by Baghdad, contrary to Obama’s campaign promise. Despite evidence that he tacitly favored an Afghan buildup, high praise was directed towards his “skepticism” and quiet approach to pressurized war reviews. Gates and General David Petraeus are currently teaming up to minimize Obama’s troop withdrawals in July, with negligible consequences from Congress or the U.S. public. Now, after being hailed by Democrats and Republicans as a voice of reason in Libya, Gates finds himself under fire to the point where some pundits are forecasting his early resignation.
Either U.S. lawmakers are extraordinarily fickle, or Gates finally got caught stepping too far over the line of executive authority. Some officials and pundits expressed concern with his absolute opposition to deploying combat troops in Libya. No one is asking for this scenario, but Gates answered in an ultimatum to the president: “Not as long as I’m in this job.” His joint Congressional testimony with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also panned for being vague and unresponsive. Politico reports of the Senators' feedback: “They said one dynamic was very clear: The administration doesn’t much care what Congress thinks about the actions it’s taken so far.”
Gates finally tied his tongue after so much doublespeak.
Yet a lingering fickleness cannot be cleansed so easily. Congress and the American people have good reason to question the White House’s handling of Libya; if the operation is legally and militarily sound, why not increase political transparency? Obama cannot disregard the domestic component of supporting an insurgency, as he could generate Congressional and public support through heightened interaction. But if Congress is worried about transparency and political folly, why did Gates receive a free pass where he deserves the most blame?
Where is that same public outcry over Yemen?
The Defense Secretary didn’t want to weigh in - didn’t consider revolution to be America’s business in a fourth-generation conflict - and he’ll probably avoid Yemen’s scales for the time being. Looking lost on each occasion, Gates broke his silence by knocking two dents in U.S. policy. First came the obvious but disturbing admission that the White House hadn't done any "post-planning" for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, multiplying U.S. fears of his replacement and Yemenis’ fear that Washington is colluding with him. A week later, during an interview with ABC News, Gates mentioned Yemen almost in passing and within a strict counter-terrorism context.
“I think it is a real concern,” he said of a Saleh-less Yemen, “because the most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of al Qaeda - al Qaeda and 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.”
Gates’s remarks quickly landed him a leading role in the opposition’s propaganda, which accused him of synchronizing threats with Saleh. Yemen's embattled president has repeatedly defied demands to step down after 32 years in office, and blames all sections of Yemen’s opposition except the youth for stirring “chaos” - by collaborating with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But as Saleh and U.S. officials point to territorial gains by AQAP, Yemeni protesters accuse Saleh of orchestrating a pullout in Jaar and intentionally destabilizing the Abyan governorate.
And Gates is being cited as evidence.
According to one of many opposition statements to Obama, “Millions of Yemeni peaceful protesters are questioning the silence and the insubstantial announcements by some members of your administration and moreover, overt bias in favor of the Yemeni tyrant. The respected Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, announced publicly that protests in Yemen are an internal affair and the primary concern of the United States is instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP... Yemeni women, men, children, and elders are all eager and confident that they will hear from you as the leader of the free world and that you will support their democratic goals now and in the future.”
Although Gates is surely monitoring the situation - his name pops up in many opposition complaints - there’s a certain obliviousness to dropping terror threats and evacuating. Normally so cool and collected, Gates stepped on a land mine in Yemen and has retreated behind the Pentagon walls ever since. His personal controversy makes Washington’s blackout that much more impressive and suspicious. Neither the White House nor State Department confronted Saleh’s violent stall tactics last week, an overt blanket that can only be explained by political manipulation.
And when the State Department did address Yemen at Friday's end, spokesman Mark Toner borrowed Gates’s broken field glasses.
“Well, it’s clearly a concern,” he replied when asked about Saleh’s diversion from AQAP, “but as we’ve said, our counter-terrorism cooperation continues in Yemen. And frankly, it’s not something that’s directed at one person; it’s ongoing cooperation with the Government of Yemen. But obviously, we want to see a resolution to the unrest in Yemen. We believe that President Saleh has made some movement on his side, the demonstrators have made some movements, but they need to obviously come together and forge a way forward. But clearly, the counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen are foremost on our minds and our assistance and our counter-terrorism cooperation continues.”
Clearly - and that’s the core problem in U.S. policy. If counter-terrorism was treated as a secondary priority to good governance, America wouldn’t be facing the current level of threat from Yemen’s instability and AQAP.
While Saleh regularly speaks of transferring power and stepping down “with dignity,” his defiant speeches and military commands leave no doubt to his genuine feelings. Saleh continues to react violently, plead innocence or cry conspiracy, and ultimately fall into the disproportionate trap of fourth-generation warfare. He's particularly concerned about the fate of his son and nephews, who double as his military liaisons with Washington, and has refused to bow to their removal. He also rejects exile if forced from office and vows to stay on as chairman of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). After the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the main political opposition, released a generous offer that would transfer power to Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s Vice President, Speaker of Parliament Yahya Al-Raee dismissed the plan for being “prepared during a khat chew” and “having no value.”
After unsuccessfully negotiating with the JMP to avoid the youth’s demand of immediate resignation, Saleh now accuses the JMP of conspiring with AQAP, the Houthis, and secessionist Southern Movement to hijack the revolution. al-Raee even argued as the youth has - “the JMP does not represent the Yemeni opposition.” Saleh did add, however, that he would discuss a power transfer after the JMP ended “street protests, sit-ins, road blocks, assassination operations, and lifts rebellion inside military units.”
His stall tactics amount to begging for an end to fourth-generation warfare, the only type of resistance Yemenis can mount. They have no reason to stop until they achieve their goals.
Opposition spokesman Mohamed Qahtan warned, "the JMP's offer is the last chance for Saleh to smoothly leave and peacefully pass the power to his deputy, whom the president described as the safe hands. If Saleh rejected such a proposal for him, he would then receive the hard decision from the youth-led street protesters.”
So can the White House maintain its wall of silence into next week and beyond? Stronger statements may be unavoidable after Yemeni police beat hundreds of protesters over the weekend, including women. Of course the freedom and security of women is vital, but ignoring violence against men sets a double-standard in human rights. Protesters were beaten and gassed throughout the week without comment from the White House or State Department, swelling relatively fresh anti-American sentiment. What was still a friendly populace in early March is low on hope in early April.
“We are really very, very angry because America until now didn’t help us similar to what Mr. Obama said that Mubarak has to leave now,” said Tawakel Karman, a female activist and senior member of Al-Islah who helped organize the initial protests and sparked a wider uprising by being arrested. “Obama says he appreciated the courage and dignity of Tunisian people. He didn’t say that for Yemeni people. We feel that we have been betrayed.”
For “security” reasons the Obama administration has remained silent and thus shared in Saleh's consequences. Security concerns cannot justify a policy that further aggravates those concerns; the White House is simply riding out a bad policy. U.S. counterinsurgency remains one-dimensional so long as Washington neglects political and public diplomacy, matters of equal importance during fourth-generation warfare. Only Yemen's military space has been filled, leaving the political and social dimensions void of influence. Public silence is directly linked to AQAP’s territorial gains, as an unresponsive Saleh harms himself, Yemen, and U.S. policy.
This is why Gates’s comments displayed such a low understanding of the world’s dominate style of warfare. Yemen’s insurgency ranges across the non-military spectrum yet he only addressed the military sliver. His errors agitated Yemen's political and information spheres, inflicting real damage on U.S. policy, and no one bothered to cleaned up his mess. Yemen’s struggle doesn’t weigh the stronger military force - it calculates the sharper political message. And America’s high-technology has become a dull blade.
Private diplomacy, an Obama favorite, doesn’t achieve the same results in the public arena of guerrilla warfare. As Yemenis don’t trust his officials, he must take charge in order to preserve any semblance of strategy in Yemen.
The New York Times claims that a policy is slowly coalescing. Unfortunately doubt oozes from its insider reporting. First, the Times provides additional evidence that Washington supported Saleh up to “last week,” demonstrating poor judgment and a slow response time. Apparently the administration only now realizes that Saleh won't follow through on his reforms - or maybe the White House believes it can no longer explain its support for Saleh. The supposed change in mood also reveals a begrudging reaction to criticism of the double-standard between Libya and Yemen, not a sincere belief that life after Saleh will improve for Yemenis and U.S. policy.
The White House still intends to “ease” Saleh out of office rather than accept his immediate removal. But most disturbingly, one administration official went off record with a statement nearly identical to parts of Saleh’s speeches.
“Groups of various stripes - Al Qaeda, Houthis, tribal elements, and secessionists - are exploiting the current political turbulence and emerging fissures within the military and security services for their own gain,” the official warns. “Until President Saleh is able to resolve the current political impasse by announcing how and when he will follow through on his earlier commitment to take tangible steps to meet opposition demands, the security situation in Yemen is at risk of further deterioration.”
In spite of all talk otherwise, counter-terrorism still comes before democracy in Washington’s mind, disregarding the connection between the two. If Obama sincerely believes that Saleh must go, he must assume control and prove his resolve in public. Otherwise Yemenis are justified in believing the two presidents are sinking together into chaos.