April 5, 2011

White House Still Playing Saleh’s Game

Facing the journalistic firing line, U.S. officials have steadfastly insisted that the White House regularly condemns the government’s use of violence in Yemen. They also vow continual support for the opposition movement, and never forget to mention that Yemen’s instability poses a top threat to America’s national security. So important is Yemen that its revolution, already receiving the least public attention from Washington, suddenly went quiet again on Tuesday.

The White House’s support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is cracking, that much is sure. But the Obama administration hasn’t given up on backing Saleh’s terms over the opposition.

Despite ongoing violence in Sana'a, Aden, and the highland city of Ta'izz, the White House’s press briefing didn’t mention Yemen after being forced to on Monday. These non-mentions from low-level officials may sound trivial, however they’re the only officials talking. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton avoid Yemen like it's Ebola, a systematic cover-up of grave concern to U.S. foreign policy as a whole. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the problem worse. As a result spokesmen and counter-terrorism officials have been left to deliver America’s political message, counterproductive policy when image is so vital to earning trust.

And Yemen’s absence on Tuesday morning was obvious enough to force a late-night statement, issued after the White House realized its non-comment stood out too much. This knee-jerk reaction is just that, not a prepared substitute to heighten Yemen’s awareness. Nor did it come from Obama personally, unlike his missive to Côte d'Ivoire.

“The United States strongly condemns the use of violence by Yemeni government forces against demonstrators in Sanaa, Taiz, and Hodeida in the past several days,” reads a statement by Press Secretary Jay Carney. “The Yemeni people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and we remind President Ali Abdullah Saleh of his responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Yemenis who are exercising their universal right to engage in political expression. We call upon the Government of Yemen to conduct full investigations into these events and to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.”

The rare singling out of government forces demonstrates the subtle shift in U.S. policy to get behind the opposition movement. But for every shift in the positive direction comes a negative count-shift, and Carney moves from condemning governmental killings to asking for a government investigation in one sentence.

Every protester in Yemen holds Saleh responsible and wonders why America isn't holding him accountable.

Trying to inject some reason into this non-sense, Amnesty International has pointed out the obvious failings of Saleh's “justice” system. Calling for external investigations, regional deputy director Philip Luther warned, “The strongmen at the top cannot be allowed to just shift quietly into the sidelines when the Yemeni people are so vocally calling for accountability. The Yemeni government has an abysmal record of failing to investigate or prosecute those responsible for unlawful killings and torture or other ill-treatment.”

Sure enough, Saleh’s government answered the White House’s demand by opening an "investigation." After several officials denied that any clashes took place, Ta'izz Governor Hamoud al-Soufi told state media he was forming a committee to investigate the last four days of violence. He also blamed the protesters for attacking Ta'izz's governor building and presidential palace: “We express our deep regret for the deviation of peaceful protests.”

Protesters did engage in clashes with security forces, but disproportionate force undermines any attempt to blame them. Fourth-generation warfare is built on provoking disproportionate responses from the government, and Saleh has fallen right into the trap. Protesters also say that security forces and plain-clothed gunmen opened fire as they marched peacefully.

Beyond abetting Saleh’s stall tactics, the White House is possibly sticking to internal investigations in order to preserve Saleh’s political viability. While Saleh has expressed his intent to lead Yemen’s new opposition if disposed, the current opposition vows to hold him accountable for every act of violence during the revolution. Past crimes are a whole separate list. So if Washington wants to give Saleh a second chance later on, they need to get him off the hook now.

The second half of Carney’s statement equally illuminates how little U.S. policy has truly shifted. Hoping to be believed after two months of noticeable silence, “The United States strongly supports the Yemeni people in their quest for greater opportunity and their pursuit of political and economic reform that will fulfill their aspirations. President Saleh needs to resolve the political impasse with the opposition so that meaningful political change can take place in the near term in an orderly and peaceful manner. We call upon all sides to engage in a constructive political dialogue and to chart a course that puts Yemen’s unity, progress and future prosperity ahead of individual agendas.”

To be fair the State Department didn’t completely avoid Yemen’s crisis. Instead, spokesman Mark Toner’s mimicry of Carney provides additional evidence of stalling. When probed on a time-line and how quickly the transition should occur, Toner replies “again, that should be dictated in part by the Yemeni people, the opposition.” The reporter pushes, “You’re not doing like you did with Mubarak in saying his transition should begin now or yesterday?”

“Well, I think we’re saying – I think we do believe it should be done quickly,” Toner answers. “Obviously, there’s ongoing concerns by the protesters and they need to be addressed.”

Another acknowledgment that the White House’s political position is no longer sustainable, followed by another step back.

First, a brief description of Saleh's dialogue still gripping the Obama administration. The youthful core of Yemen’s opposition has yet to negotiate directly with Saleh, even though he has repeatedly denounced the entire opposition save for the youth. Despite frequent condemnation against the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), slandering them as al-Qaeda agents and drug dealers, Saleh has mainly chosen to negotiate with the group. This is because the JMP was willing to offer a time-table behind the youth’s back.

The JMP eventually gave up, citing fears that it would lose the street, and Saleh subsequently lumped them together with Yemen's enemies: the Houthis, Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda. But the Houthis and SM are only enemies of Saleh, not Yemen. Both are open to remaining part of the country so long as Saleh goes, and for this reason he opposes their legitimate participation in the revolution.

Hoping to avoid the youth's demand for his immediate ouster, Saleh has once more flip-flopped on the JMP: "I promise that we will make every effort to return things to normal through talks with rational people from the Joint Meetings Party. We repeat our invitation to them to sit at the table of dialogue and we call for a restraint from violence."

General Ali Mohsen Ahmar, Saleh’s defected commander, has also negotiated on the youth’s behalf. However the coalition explicitly rejects Ahmar as their leader or as a presidential candidate, seeing him as a pawn more than a king. Ahmar reportedly accepted an invite to participate in a Saudi summit held by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as has Saleh. More confusing, Ahmar claimed on Tuesday that “pro-Saleh snipers” tried to assassinate him.

While several opposition groups have welcomed the GCC’s offer, the majority promised to attend only if the focus is an "immediate transfer of power." So by saying Saleh’s time-table should be determine by the opposition - and then not backing their demand for an immediate transition - the White House refuses to accept this possibility. U.S. officials have consistently ignored the many plans submitted by Yemen’s opposition coalition, demanding more “order” as Saleh plunges the country into chaos.

Topping this unstable house of cards, Saleh and Washington have preached dialogue since early February, only for their credibility to drop with each violent day. The White House is asking Yemen’s opposition to trust their killer - this is the current state of dialogue U.S. officials speak of.

U.S. policy has shifted; no longer is the objective to keep Saleh in power. Washington’s overall actions indicate that it doesn’t want to see him go, only that it realizes his rule and U.S. support is untenable. Now the objective becomes sweetening Saleh’s parting terms and salvaging his political options under the guise of “easing him out.” Such an “orderly time-table” attempts to suck the fire out of revolution. Saleh is already using the time-bubble to set up his son and nephews, and CIA and U.S. Special Forces are busy identifying military officers capable of preserving U.S. counter-terrorism operations.

While Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell accepted Saleh’s fate on Tuesday, he insisted that no cuts will be made to Saleh’s military assistance.

Washington’s emergency response to Yemen has largely been copied from Egypt; a slow, painful, insincere slide from the government to the opposition. Although the White House is watching the same political battle unfold between Egypt’s opposition and Mubarak agents, it’s willing to accept Saleh’s remnants. Washington wants to see a controlled burn with Saleh, and is “fine with any timetable” so long as he eventually leaves.

This message has stayed consistent - and has been consistently rejected by Yemen’s opposition. Either the Obama administration still isn’t listening or it doesn’t want to listen.

Toner doesn’t actually leave Yemen’s resolution up to the opposition, saying it should be dictated “in part” by them. Thus Saleh has a say in when he leaves. Yet the opposition doesn’t view him as the plug that keeps Yemen from bleeding. He is the virus that must be cast out to heal the body. Saleh and Washington are still trying to negotiate a surrender that should be unconditional, a policy that will leave the revolution unfinished and produce new instability.

Self-reporting on its own propaganda, a New York Times editorial now calls this “belated realism.”

“The Obama administration is doing the right thing by trying to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen from office,” opens the editorial. “It should have started weeks ago, after Mr. Saleh’s supporters opened fire on protesters and more than 50 people were killed, turning most of the country against him. With the civilian death toll mounting and the military too divided and preoccupied to pursue a dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate, Mr. Saleh’s swift departure is essential.”

The truth is that Saleh turned most of the country against him before March 9th, when snipers opened fire on protesters in Sanaa's "Change Square." And judging by the Obama administration’s own actions, this “swift departure” is nothing more than fleeting idealism. No one is willing to accept Saleh’s terms except Washington and the Kingdom (Gates just landed in Riyadh). Meanwhile the White House continues to broadcast ambiguity rather than clarity, further muddying its message to Yemenis.

Until Obama breaks silence and U.S. officials halt their doublespeak - an unmistakable mark of favoritism and duplicity - U.S. policy will remain a distant dream from Yemen’s reality.

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