April 18, 2011

No Eyes On Yemen

Updating the Obama administration’s daily response to Yemen’s revolution can grow admittedly repetitive. Each day the country passes unsaid through the White House's roll-call and U.S. media, belying dire threats and its assigned importance from counter-terrorism officials. Although silence offers a variety of plot-lines, it can also go dead as a topic at any given moment.

But truth often exists within this silence and today was no different. With President Ali Abdullah Saleh stalling on the political front, provoking women and firing on protesters with tear gas, water cannons, and live bullets, the White House and State Department closed their eyes to another volatile weekend. State spokesman Mark Toner hasn’t spoken on Yemen since April 8th, when he voiced support for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative to end the stalemate. He has proceeded to use this time to address Libya and Syria on a daily basis.

Meanwhile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (briefly) filled Toner's vacuum by pushing a conclusion through the GCC, even as Saleh refuses to bow and maintains his violent crackdown.

Unfortunately for Washington and Riyadh, Yemen’s political opposition doesn’t appear to have bitten on their 30-day deadline to transfer power. Mohammed Kahtan, spokesman for the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), did tell reporters, "We are happy that our brothers in the GCC listened to our point of view. The GCC leaders were happy to hear from the JMP delegation about the guarantees that would be given to the president if he decides to step down.”

However the status of Saleh’s immunity remains unsettled in the streets, and the issue also remains secondary to his immediate fate. After sending their latest delegation to Riyadh, the JMP reiterated their call for the GCC’s April 3rd plan, which explicitly called for Saleh’s immediate resignation after transferring power to Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi. According to the JMP, the latest U.S. “offer” failed to clarify Saleh’s resignation - only his transfer of power - on top of delaying their own time-line by two weeks.

Sultan al Atwani, an opposition leader, told reporters after the meeting that the JMP supports the GCC initiative, "but we reject the paragraph that was issued in the final statement … which refers to the transfer of powers of the president. We demand the resignation of the president."

In line with Saleh’s usual doublespeak, the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) described the meeting between GCC ministers and the JMP as a "failure due to the obstinate position of the JMP.”

Perpetual silence from the White House may suggest that it doesn’t wish to enter such fluid negotiations, except this perception is false. The White House and State Department have backed the GCC’s plan against the will of Yemen’s popular opposition, triggering an immediate bias in Saleh’s favor. U.S. diplomats have personally submitted Washington’s plan to government officials in Sana’a and Riyadh, in addition to persuading the JMP to accept. The White House is already in too deep to feign ignorance - nor is the State Department shy about addressing the “positive” results of Bahrain’s ongoing negotiations.

As has been the case before, Toner’s remarks are easily transposed onto Yemen:
QUESTION: Can I start with Bahrain? So this time, Mr. Feltman [Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] was able to meet with leaders. How high were his meetings and how – I’m quite surprised by the tone of your statement because it seems like the push for demand for the respect of the rights of Bahrainis has been toned down quite a lot. You highlighted the concerns about Iran and your longstanding commitment to the people and the government who have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. Has this tone softened?

MR. TONER: Well, again, you’ve summarized some of what I said. But he also underscored the United States’ belief in universal values and conveyed that belief to the Bahraini authorities. And he also emphasized the fundamental need for respect for human rights. So I wouldn’t say there’s been any softening, but these talks took place in a very constructive atmosphere.

And we believe that this was done in a constructive manner and progress was made, and that going forward, we urge both that ongoing respect for human rights, but as well as the opposition and the Bahraini Government to engage in a political dialogue that leads to resolution.

QUESTION: Can you tell us some of the things that you expressed concerns about – the deaths in prisons, maybe?

MR. TONER: I think I – I mean, I think I’ve spoken to all of the incidents about which we have concern over the past week, including, as you noted, the death of a prominent human rights activist last week.

QUESTION: There are continued, I mean, deaths and human rights abuses taking place in Bahrain that have been documented by human rights groups over the last week and – I mean, the situation in Bahrain has been getting really bad. Last week, there were numerous criticisms of the United States and its approach to Bahrain, and, I mean, even if you’re couching your language at this podium, I hope that we can expect that – I mean, that Secretary Feltman took – can you say that he raised some of these serious issues?

And it sounds as if you’re talking about two different Bahrains because we’ve been talking at the podium about how horrible the situation is in Bahrain right now and U.S. concerns, whereas none of what you just said really reflected the seriousness of the situation there.

MR. TONER: Well, Elise, again, I disagree. Secretary Feltman went to Bahrain. He went there both to speak to the government as well as to the opposition, met with a wide range of actors, and did so in a constructive spirit. But we’ve been very, very clear about where we stand on this, that the Bahraini Government needs to respect human rights and needs to address the legitimate aspirations of its own people, and that was conveyed.
Toner then blanked on Yemen to prove how clear the White House is on universal human rights and democratic aspirations.

Yet the administration's ongoing silence cannot be blamed solely on U.S. officials. Difficult as it is to report on the non-existent, journalists seem to have forgotten the art of following up. When White House press secretary Jay Carney stops by Iraq to laud America’s progress - and “a full transition to the Iraqis” - no reporter inquires about Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent offer to extend the mission. No one questions Iraq's stability.

Likewise, Toner doesn’t go so far as to support regime change outright in Syria, believing he would risk a double-standard in Bahrain and Yemen. Except the reporter continues, “Look, it’s not for us to say when a transition should take place. Really? I mean, you did say so in Egypt and you did so say in Yemen and you have said so in Libya...”

Beyond a sluggish response to Egypt’s revolution, the Obama administration hasn’t definitively moved against Saleh. Nearly two weeks have passed since the GCC intervened, days after The New York Times' alleged “shift” occurred, and the U.S. plan attempted to delay his resignation by another month. While a weakening in position did occur, Washington is still mounting a resistance to soften Saleh’s landing. Bluntly speaking, he hasn’t been so militarily useful as to deserve this royal treatment.

Some reporters give Toner a hard time after raising America’s clandestine support for Syria’s opposition, wondering why the administration hasn’t done more to undermine Bashar al-Assad's regime. Responding to the same question, Carney replies, “As you know also, the U.S. government provides support to civil society, democracy and human rights activists around the world in line with our values, among them respecting the fundamental human rights of free speech, peaceful assembly and human dignity. U.S. outreach to Syrian civilian society is entirely consistent with those principles.”

No one asks why the opposite strategy was pursued in Yemen - why U.S. efforts were directed into propping up Saleh.

Maybe reporters believe the obvious answer is al-Qaeda, maybe they’ve fallen into the White House’s spell, or maybe they’ve been ordered to keep quiet. But the pattern of evasion is crystal clear and time-stamped. We await the day when the U.S. media flips its lights on - after Saleh's fall.

Until then a deep shadow lurks below Yemen’s surface.

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