May 27, 2011

Saleh and Obama: Partners in Audacity

One lives - and may die - by his definition of audacity. The other cannot live up to his own. One put his own rule ahead of the Yemeni people for nearly 33 years, the other decided to ride the end of his regime until the wheels fell off. Joined at the “terror” hip, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and U.S. President Barack Obama are now sinking together under their failed policies.

Although preaching Yemenis’ universal rights in the last week, the Obama administration has expended much of its energy suppressing their five-month revolution. Protecting U.S. counter-terror assets (Saleh’s family) and Saudi interests has superseded Yemen’s own security and the freedom of its people. White House and Pentagon officials frequently warn that the vacuum benefits al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), now considered al-Qaeda’s most potent branch.

What they surely realize but cannot admit is that current U.S. policy also benefits AQAP, first by propping up a ruthless dictator and now by delaying his fall.

In order to derail a signing ceremony last Sunday that would theoretically cede power, Saleh momentarily removed his security forces from the streets as “armed loyalists” besieged the UAE embassy in Sana’a. U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein was trapped in the melee before escaping to Saleh’s palace, where the embattled president again refused to sign a power transfer outlined by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Personally affronted after going easy on Saleh during Yemen’s National Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reverted to scolding him as “the only party that refuses to match actions to words.”

Except this isn’t true. Beyond four months of relative silence, the last week has proven a disaster in U.S. crisis management. One White House official anonymously told The New York Times on Wednesday, “Even by his own standards of what is rational, he is not being rational.” The next day, as Saleh launched new attacks on his own Hashid tribe, Obama and Clinton repeated their calls to Yemen’s deaf president.

Whether by choice or force, the White House continues to buy into Saleh’s threats despite his unflinchingly hostile behavior. Off in Britain, Obama’s personal appeals to resign were greeted with steadfast resistance. As Saleh busied himself orchestrating a civil war in response to domestic and international pressure, his spokesman Ahmed al-Soufi delivered a defiant message: "I will not leave power and I will not leave Yemen. I don't take orders from outside.”

U.S. officials nevertheless rely a small box of standard lines to throw at Yemen. Something about “a path forward” that will “resolve the current political crisis” and “really chart a way forward out of this violence towards a democratic transition.” The United States “continues to support the efforts of the GCC” and “the departure of President Saleh, who has consistently reneged on those agreements.”

As such, Yemen’s crisis “could be resolved by President Saleh simply signing the agreement that the GCC put in front of him.”

The reality is that Saleh never truly committed to the GCC’s proposal, instead speaking through his spokesmen and ruling General People’s Party (GPC) in an elaborate smoke-and-mirrors campaign. He’s backtracked on his rhetoric, not his actual intentions. Now he’s provoking a crisis with his own tribe, all in a vain effort to stall for time and legitimize his rule through the threat of civil war.

Worse still, the GCC’s proposal is rotten to the core and rejected by the popular revolution, including the Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) and Civil Coalition of Revolutionary Youth (CCRY). With Saleh perched on his ledge, giving him another 30 days as specified by the GCC would only intensify the crisis. Immunity encourages a suicidal crime spree, and his GPC has been allocated substantial authority in a potential transition council. At one point the GCC included a clause that protesters return home, contrary to U.S. support for peaceful demonstrations.

Negotiated behind their backs with the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of political actors, U.S. and Saudi officials crafted the GCC’s document on input from Saleh’s GPC. It will not “simply” chart a way out of Yemen’s crisis or address the aspirations and demands of its people. It does not support “a peaceful and orderly transition.” The streets are screaming their demands to the White House yet it refuses to listen.

Contrary to “changing” U.S. policy, the administration’s line since Sunday has weakened relative to Saleh’s hardening. While Obama declared from Britain, "the time for our leadership is now," his leadership has been M.I.A. in Yemen. So has his judgement. After allowing U.S. policy in Yemen to erode and reacting with exceptional hesitancy, The New York Times recently revealed a call between Saleh and John Brennan, the White House’s counterterrorism chief. Brennan had phoned Saleh on Wednesday hoping to score big for Obama’s “Moment of Opportunity.”

Although Saleh would reject his offer immediately, only later did their secret deal emerge from the shadows. Obama had offered to, “single out the Yemeni president as a positive example of change in his long-awaited speech on the Middle East,” if he signed the GCC’s proposal.

Such a move would have committed a blunder of monstrous proportions. Slaughtering hundreds of protesters just in the past four months and tormenting every piece of Yemen’s diverse society for years, Saleh will never be considered an example of positive change. Obama probably would have been forced to retract this offense. His one-liner on Saleh ended up outraging Yemenis as it is; to excuse his behavior through the GCC would have displayed a frightening level of ignorance.

Sadly Saleh’s version of audacity has overpowered Obama’s. Rather than take a bold risk in Yemen, his administration insults Yemenis through empty rhetoric and meek support. Saleh just attempted to manufacture a civil war to remain in power and is now deploying the last of his air power, yet the U.S. continues to hold his hand through the GCC. The political bloc is a coffin for Yemen’s revolution, not unlike those coffins protesters carry through the streets reading “GCC initiative.”

Terminating hundreds of millions in U.S. aid (counter-terrorism support is ongoing) and levying UN sanctions may not impact Saleh with Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia positioned to cushion his fall. Saleh isn’t leaving - he’s stalled for time through the U.S. sponsored GCC since the charade began. The last four months have been one fantastic act, and he’s prepared to end it on his own terms. However America and the rest of the international community can still lead the moral assault against him. U.S. pressure remains begrudging rather than sincere - this must change immediately.

For now the Obama administration remains willing to turn Yemen’s power transfer over to Saleh; the G8 continues to follow despite him barricading himself in Sana’a. President Obama must personally condemn Saleh’s regime, scrap the GCC proposal immediately, and engage the popular coalitions in an effort to construct a power transfer based on their aspirations. Yemen isn’t undergoing a political crisis, but an unconditional revolution aimed at total regime change.

Washington may not be able to remove Saleh by carrot or stick. That doesn’t mean the Obama administration should gamble every last chip on the wrong side of Yemen’s future.


  1. When Bahrein lifts the state of emergency on Wednesday it's hard to say what will happen. I think people will take to the streets and be shot down. It's remarkable how the differences between the Arab Spring revolts are coming out. They are all different of course with different historical and cultural (and constitutional)backgrounds and roots. Meanwhile in Egypt, the revolution has succeeded but an agency is in government which is not revolutionary and never was. I fear the worst for the Egyptians as well.

  2. The universality and diversity of the Arab Spring is certainly one of its most fascinating qualities.

    Bahrain isn't looking good, however I'm optimistic for Egyptians. These revolutions will take years to shake out, and I'd be more worried if they weren't protesting anymore. As it is, their continual resistance will prove beneficial to Syrians, Yemenis etc. who learn from their example.