April 8, 2011

White House Mistimes Another Jump in Yemen

It’s going to be interesting - and likely disturbing - to watch how the Obama administration reacts to today’s events in Yemen. After being forced to address the wavering support for President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Monday, as detailed by The New York Times, the White House and State Department reverted to silence for the next three days. Despite rumors that the Obama administration finally gave up on Saleh, its "evolving" policy hasn’t changed much from previous months.

Holding onto the fallacious theory that coddling Saleh is the best way to push him out, the White House once again finds itself on the wrong end of his insincere dialogue. Apparently little was learned from Hosni Mubarak’s final days, when President Barack Obama welcomed Egypt’s “change” just as Mubarak defied protesters for one more night.

In a special release from State spokesman Mark Toner, “The United States welcomes the initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to address the challenging political situation in Yemen. We strongly encourage all sides to engage in this urgently needed dialogue to reach a solution supported by the Yemeni people. President Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transition of power; the timing and form of this transition should be identified through negotiation and begin soon. To succeed, all parties must participate in a process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people, including their political and economic aspirations.”

A few problems - Saleh’s latest speech rejecting calls to resign, and ongoing violence against anti-government protesters.

After teleconferencing with Saudi King Abdullah bin King Abdul Aziz, Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and EAU President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan - to welcome their efforts to maintain Yemen’s unity - Saleh shut down their attempt to remove him.

"We depend on our strength and trust on you and we take our legitimacy from the Yemeni great people, not from Qatar as this is a clear intervention in the Yemeni affairs and we reject what Al Jazeera dictates because we own our will," he said in a brief speech... "The Yemeni people are free to accept mediation from their brothers and friends, but they reject taking orders or intervention.”

“We will reject any new initiative from any country dealing with Yemen's current crises,” he concluded.

One Yemeni official claimed that Saleh and leaders within his party, the General People’s Council (GPC), became angered at Qatar’s “leak” of the proposal, which apparently wasn’t meant for public eyes. And little wonder. According to the official, “The idea of dialogue is for all factions to sit down and nail together a proposal; instead the GCC dictated a proposal without a dialogue.”

Translation, Saleh wants to dictate his terms. One Western diplomat commented, “[The initiative] has been derailed. It’s no longer on a fast-track.” But Saleh went into the GCC’s summit with intentions of derailing it.

Meanwhile security forces renewed their cracked down in Taiz, where protesters clashed with Saleh’s police during a funeral processions. At least two people are confirmed dead, with hundreds more injured and exposed to high levels of tear gas. Clashes in Taiz have continued since last weekend, when the rising tide of violence forced Toner to condemn the actions of Saleh’s forces as “appalling.” Now, as new blood spills into the streets, he’s reverted to praising Saleh’s “public willingness to engage in a peaceful transition of power.”

Until Washington unconditionally supports the protesters’ side, it will always find itself on the wrong side in Yemen. And despite its GCC cover, the group is essentially acting under the orders of Riyadh and Washington. The State Department’s release also demonstrates a total lack of political savvy. Chancing a position that Saleh’s own government and possibly the opposition rejects, the White House still tried to jump on the GCC’s dialogue in case it bore fruit. However it was never going to, at least not today, thus sticking the Obama administration right back in Saleh’s sinking ship.

And now, as the White House tries to remain silent, it’s about to bring new attention upon itself for guessing wrong. Keep up the amazing diplomacy.

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