April 25, 2011

Saleh’s Personality Rubbing Off On Obama

It seemed impossible that the Obama administration could dodge Yemen on Monday.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh touched off a media storm on Saturday by ordering his officials to hint at accepting a power transfer, as negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Western diplomats. Personally defiant in addressing the nation, Saleh refused to step down over the weekend and accused the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) of sowing “chaos.” Security forces continue to fire on protesters on Monday even as U.S. and E.U. officials praise Saleh’s “willingness” to “peacefully” transfer power.

Yet in a stunning feat of media silence, the White House and State Department once more skipped Yemen’s revolution on their way to Syria and Libya. While the State Department failed to brief reporters at all, White House press spokesman Jay Carney took immediate fire on Syria and never looked back. 7,000 words without a single mention of Yemen or Saleh should qualify as a minor miracle - or policy-makers and reporters are simply failing to do their job.

Carney spent a sizable portion of his time defending President Barack Obama’s response to Syria’s violence and President Bashar al-Assad’s loss of confidence. Despite its vocal presence in Syria’s revolution, the White House has come under increasing scrutiny for saying and doing too little, speculation driven by theories that Washington and Saudi Arabia prefer al-Assad’s “stability” to the opposition. Saad Khan is one of many who point out the superficial nature of press statements, a feeling we certainly sympathize with.

Condemning the “deafening silence over Syria,” Khan writes of its opposition, “They also know that no one in the world would support them. They have to wage their battle on their own. Deafening silence is the apt word for describing the diplomatic reaction on the massacre that is being carried out by the Assad Empire. The 'reformer,' as Hillary Clinton has called him, is now out implementing his agenda of reforms: the most violent repression. Obama has given a lame statement urging the same dictator who is behind the carnage to show restraint. European Union has paid lip service to the cause of Syrians and many countries in the world have not even done that.”

Khan concludes, “There is still time to be on the right side of history. Syrians need international support, half-hearted diplomatic statements won't do any good.”

They are, however, better than the absolute darkness that Yemenis protest under.

U.S. policy hasn’t fared well in either state. Because of U.S, Israeli, and Saudi interests - political, military, financial - and a perceived double standard between friendly and hostile dictators, Washington has been unable and unwilling to move against al-Assad. Carney explains during his defense of Obama, “this administration for two months has been repeatedly encouraging President Assad and the Syrian government to implement meaningful reforms, and yet they have refused to respect the rights of the Syrian people or be responsive to their aspirations.”

Nevertheless, Carney retreats to the safe position that, “in all these countries has been that it is up to the people of those countries to decide who their leaders are, and we call for processes of reform that allow that to take place.”


This position has frozen those opposition movements currently ruled by U.S.-supported dictators out of the decision-making process. Contradiction cannot be avoided in the fact that “processes of reform” inherently favor the current regimes, as Carney observes in Syria, and thus cannot respond to the people’s aspirations. As this false duality fails in Syria, so too has the White House’s contradiction rampaged through Yemen by forcing an unpopular agreement upon an unrepresentative opposition.

For the moment Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of political groups now operating under “The Common Front,” has accepted the GCC’s initiative. After voicing a number of reservations about the wording, time-frame and demands in the document, all of which favor Saleh’s regime, the JMP maintained its support for the GCC on Monday. According to spokesman Mohammed Qahtan, "We have given our final accord to the GCC initiative after having received assurances from our Gulf brothers and American and European friends on our objections to certain clauses in the plan.”

Neither the JMP nor Saleh have formally accepted the GCC’s plan, and the Common Front insists that Saleh resign before a transitional "unity" government is formed. An altered document, then, may have been resubmitted as a final offer rather than accepting the GCC’s offer as final. One major concession appears to have eliminated the demand calling for an immediate end to protests, which the streets vehemently opposed on top of Saleh’s delayed resignation and immunity.

“We have accepted the Gulf proposal on condition that the protests are allowed to continue until Saleh leaves office,” Qahtan explained. “Leaders of the J.M.P. met with the American ambassador today, and he confirmed for us that the protests can continue through this month; this is why we agreed to the proposal.”

Why, though, was this clause inserted to begin with? To nudge Saleh out? A doubtful excuse given how favorable the term is for him. A more plausible explanation would perceive the creation of an artificial bargaining chip for the JMP to offer the streets. This ploy, however, merely increased suspicion of anything related to the JMP or GCC, nor has Saleh accepted the document's amendment. Allowing protests to continue without his consent fuels Yemen’s combustible cycle, whereby U.S.-trained security forces violently suppress the opposition under Saleh’s immunity blanket.

Each day brings new crimes against the Yemeni people, aggravating the situation rather than deescalating it.

And what about next month? Do protesters still have to return home if Saleh stonewalls beyond 30 days? Furthermore, what guarantees have been offered when Saleh is summoning JMP leaders to be “interrogated” for their "chaos?” How ironic that the man many believe should be put on trial is now trying to open a trial on the opposition.

Attempting to steal the youth away from the JMP when they never backed the JMP to begin with, Saleh declared to “massive gatherings of youth,” ''We would like to thank you for your kind feelings and the efforts you exert, and we call on all youth to join the Yemeni revolution, unity, freedom, republic, and democracy but not rebellion or destruction. No for chaos, plotting, blocking roads and killings, yes for the revolution of the youth, September, October and May 22… No for chaos revolution."

The JMP doesn’t need enemies with its current “friends.” No warning emanates from Western or Gulf states on Saleh’s defiant rhetoric or actions, silence that encourages the belief that he can defy the international community without real punishment. The Common Front's “change of heart” was forced “after the US ambassador to Yemen pushed the coalition to accept the GCC deal,” according to the BBC. A Saudi Cabinet meeting chaired by King Abdullah also urged Saleh and the opposition to accept a flawed agreement, as did Britain's Foreign Office.

Despite the disconnect between Yemen’s reality and the GCC’s initiative, Foreign Minister Alistair Burt told reporters after meeting with his UAE counterpart Anwar Mohammed Gargash, “We strongly support the GCC initiative to resolve the crisis in Yemen. The GCC initiative represents our best hope for a constructive and peaceful way forward.”

This is a sad statement if so.

Burt’s remarks appear suspiciously identical to Washington’s response, which urged “swift implementation” of the GCC’s flawed proposal. Britain has already sunk itself into enough trouble following America’s poor strategies, and should consider developing its own policy instead of copying Washington’s flailing response. Before and after the revolution, U.S. policy has destabilized Yemen’s government, contradicted U.S. values and failed to negate AQAP’s growth, ultimately compromising U.S. national interests.

Neither the U.S., E.U. or Gulf states have adopted the Yemeni people’s interests above their own. Washington, London and Riyadh have all praised Saleh’s “cooperation” and urged the opposition to accept a futile “resolution.” If the youth should be engaged, why haven’t they been? If they can protest, why were they initially told to go home? U.S. policy would be unrecognizable in comparison to the present if Yemen’s future were truly up to its people.

Khaled Al-Ansi, a leading member of the organizing committee of the youths, told Arab News that they welcome any initiative that demands Saleh’s immediate and unconditional resignation. But he blamed the opposition for negotiating without popular consent and with untrustworthy partners. Al-Ansi warned, "The problem lies with those two parties (the government and the opposition). They have been engaged in fruitless dialogues for ages that have led the country to this crisis.”

He then accused the international community of “paying lip service to the protesters while the regime killed them with impunity.”

Following Saleh’s lead, Washington and Riyadh have employed duplicity and coercion to divide Yemen’s opposition while dictating their own terms. Private diplomacy equates to biased diplomacy. After butting heads in Egypt, the two governments are determined to catch any dominoes before they trigger wider regime change in the Gulf, and are justifying the suppression of opposition movements with hollow reform.

"We appreciate any effort conducive to Yemen's stability, but if we go into details, we find out that our main and firm demands were not met through the proposal..." said Hosam al Sharjabi, another spokesman for the youth protesting outside Sana'a University. "The international community should not deal with Yemen out of their own interests."

Al-Assad, for all of his faults, isn’t unilaterally supported by Washington, complicating its response to Syria. But as one of Saleh’s lone supporters, the White House must stop pushing an unfavorable initiative upon the opposition. The time has long called for Obama to personally demand his immediate resignation.

Anything less employs Saleh’s tactics and plays on his side - and it will be the losing side in the end.

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