The weekend, theoretically, offers the White House a chance to regroup. This is not always the case in reality. With all that time to improve upon its dud of a policy in Yemen, the Obama administration went about its business as usual on Monday. While the White House is understandably consumed with its domestic agenda, the State Department once again directed its attention towards Libya and Syria, two states where Washington aims for regime change.
At this point the U.S. media is clearly part of the problem, asking no follow up to Yemen’s weekend violence and spokesman Mark Toner’s statement from Friday. It is, however, admittedly difficult to report on a topic that U.S. officials are unwilling to address.
Yet the magnitude of Yemen’s revolution and its impact on U.S. foreign policy proved too much to suppress completely. A sunny outlook might see Hillary Clinton finally picking up the tab in Yemen, rather than leave it to helpless spokesmen. During a press conference with Finnish Foreign Minister Dr. Cai-Goran, a reporter finally broke the silence barrier by asking for the Secretary’s opinion on negotiations between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and elements of Yemen’s opposition.
“With respect to Yemen,” Clinton answered, “we have consistently welcomed the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to address the situation in Yemen. There is an enormous amount of discussions going on. This is a dynamic process. We strongly encouraged all sides to engage in a dialogue to reach a solution that would be supported by the Yemeni people. Now, President Saleh has expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transition, but we don’t have any specifics, we don’t have any timelines so we are supporting the efforts that the GCC is currently leading to arrive at a clear statement of what the government will do and the timeline that it will occur.”
Thus the slightest ray of light was smothered.
Factoring out her cosmetic changes, Clinton’s statement follows Toner’s nearly word for word. Perhaps she wrote both, or maybe neither. What matters most is the scripted nature of U.S. policy, and how it refuses to change in accordance with Yemen’s events. But Clinton’s statement represents no mere stagnation either. Hundreds of Yemeni protesters were wounded over the weekend, with a handful meeting a worse fate, as the opposition movement denounced Saleh’s ongoing rejection of the GCC.
Incidentally, Clinton’s reference to Saleh’s “peaceful transition” followed his atrocious human rights review from her own department.
Alternating between welcoming its support and condemning its interference, Saleh has predictably exploited the GCC to continue stalling for time and favorable terms. This strategy has flipped him onto the same page as the opposition, which views the GCC’s initiative as pro-Saleh. As it currently stands, the package grants Saleh and his family immunity in exchange for a transfer of power to Saleh’s vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi.
While Saleh’s ruling General People’s Party (GPC) has condemned the proposal as unconstitutional, the opposition has largely rejected both conditions as unjust. Nor does constitutional authority appeal to the protesters expecting to write a new charter. The opposition’s general position remains unchanged: Saleh must resign before any other terms are negotiated. Clinton’s talk of an illusionary time-line conjures up a scene from The Matrix - there is no time-line.
"Who would be a fool to offer guarantees to a regime that kills peaceful protesters?” asked opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabry. “Our principal demand is that Saleh leaves first.”
Furthermore, after several unsuccessful weekend attempts, the GCC’s package was again rejected by both sides on Monday. Reading from his standard script, Saleh “welcomed the efforts of our brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council,” and claimed he had “no reservations about transferring power peacefully within the framework of the constitution.” Already bitter words to the opposition, Saleh then left his statement intentionally ambiguous, as if to suggest he will step down in 2013.
The opposition quickly responded with their own hard-line. Reading a statement on behalf of Yemen's Youth Revolutionary Council, Ali Fowruzi warned, "This is the 12th time this month Ali [Saleh] has told us he is ready to quit, yet he is still here. His promises are worthless to us now. This is political jockeying, nothing else.”
The sum of events demonstrates how Clinton actually moved U.S. policy backwards, at least publicly. Yes, Saleh is being pushed out the door, but only because Washington no longer has a choice. It still wishes it could keep him. And disregarding Egypt’s approach to a second revolutionary wave, the Obama administration continues to angle for a friendly politico-military transition based on Saleh’s old guard. Clinton must be following this plan all along, conclusively proving the falsity of last week’s reporting from The New York Times.
Belated realism is nothing more than stubborn idealism.
Shadowed by Saleh’s rogue status, Clinton moved backwards by ignoring Yemen’s violence and supporting an initiative that neither side accepts in principle. As unstable policy is prone to exploitation, Clinton quickly found herself on the front page of Saba state media. “USA welcomes GCC plan on Yemen crisis,” blares a headline above Clinton’s picture.
Obviously these statements do matter because Saleh wastes no time manipulating them for his personal gain.
For now Yemen’s opposition movement cannot afford to reject the GCC outright. In spite of Washington and Saudi Arabia’s persistent support for Saleh, protesters (like Egyptians) understand that they cannot reject foreign support until every last option has been sealed off. If the international community cannot uproot him, only then can the opposition completely defy the GCC and America. As negotiations drag on without progress, the opposition will have few choices except to reject the GCC as the puppet that it is.
Yemen is still riding down Egypt’s path rather than Libya’s. With the right strategy Washington can still avoid this outcome, perilous as the currently policy is. But if the Obama administration continues to side with Saleh over the protesters - pushing a hollow transition over Yemenis’ blood - the opposition will eventually find itself possessing the legitimacy to attempt a forceful removal.
After repeatedly giving Saleh a free pass, any White House condemnation will fall on deaf ears in Yemen’s streets.