May 25, 2011
Terminating U.S. Support For Ali Saleh
The time to sever U.S. support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived long before his loyalists surrounded the UAE embassy in Sana’a, trapping U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein in the process. It came before Saleh repeatedly backtracked on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power transfer, a document partially authored by U.S. and Saudi officials. Certainly before Saleh manufactured a fresh round of civil strife by assaulting the head of his own Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ahmar, who decided to back the revolution months ago.
From the revolution’s beginning, the Obama administration should have realized the inevitability of Saleh’s collapse and chosen the right side of history - those pro-democracy protesters filling Yemen’s streets by the millions. Yet the timing hasn’t been good for Washington and Riyadh, forcing them to put their own interests ahead of Yemen’s revolution.
Now its people’s safety, U.S. interests and regional stability are in greater danger than before.
The “friendly” neighborhood dictator
Many questionable factors account for America’s stubborn support of the GCC initiative, rejected as illegitimate by the popular revolution and declared dead by GCC officials. While al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) serves as the main excuse for supporting Saleh, its small force doesn’t justify obstructing an entire revolution. Especially when the opposition, far from adhering to an extremist ideology, pledges to be a more trustworthy partner against AQAP.
On WikiLeaks’ record for redeploying U.S.-trained counter-terrorism units against Yemen’s political opposition, Saleh has sought to regulate AQAP more than eliminate it. Doing so has brought in hundreds of millions in U.S. military aid, along with economic aid to siphon and Washington’s comfy political blanket to hide under. Aware of his unstable personality and his crime rap, the Obama administration continued to let Saleh slide because it "needed him.”
This dependency encouraged his bad behavior, antagonized Yemen’s populace, accelerated the revolution, and expanded AQAP’s area of operations. U.S. policy run through AQAP's militaristic prism has proven a counterinsurgency disaster on all fronts: political, military, economic and social. Saleh always advertised himself as the only man who could hold Yemen together. He ended up uniting all segments of society against him.
However the Obama administration’s immediate concerns appear to have glossed over this reality. Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) is slated to play a key role in a potential transition, contrary to the revolution’s demands. Seeking to place another subservient regime in Saleh’s void, the administration also needs time to identify new military liaisons. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, and his nephews currently serve as the Pentagon’s point-men, and U.S. Special Forces have run counter-terror training through the Republican Guard.
Widely vilified and compromised as U.S. assets, all of Saleh’s branches need replacing.
Equally important is scrubbing the trail of evidence back to Washington. Facing increasing military defections at the tribal level, Saleh has relied upon his personal Republican Guard and Central Security to suppress the revolution. While U.S. officials claim to see no “bleed-over” from U.S.-trained units into his street crackdown, Yemeni accounts claim otherwise. Meanwhile Republican Guard troops under Ahmed’s command were recently spotted heading towards Hasaba district, home to al-Ahmar and the Interior Ministry building that has been taken over by his militia.
Saleh is equivalent to Osama bin Laden; if protesters catch him and hold a trial, he could spill America’s every misdeed into Yemen's political arena. Saleh wasted no time calling President Barack Obama out personally for directing “creative chaos” from Washington, and repeated this accusation before ordering his loyalists to obstruct Sunday’s signing ceremony. He will certainly turn on Washington even if Yemenis discount his intel, and AQAP would exploit this material to reinforce bin Laden’s narrative of Western puppets. Treating Saleh with kid gloves and silence has more to do with him targeting the U.S. government than Yemenis.
Thus the Obama administration has attempted to extract Saleh with immunity rather than punish him like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On a higher geopolitical level, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to see any more waves crash along its border. Although King Abdullah and Saleh share a close relationship, the royal family is no fan and runs a tribal intelligence network to counter his loss of authority in the north. This network could erode in a democratic Yemen, and Bahrain's regime might collapse from Saleh’s aftershocks. Perceiving its outer walls as crumbling, Yemen fell into Riyadh’s grander counter-revolution.
U.S. policy is drifting in the same counter-revolution, caught in the false choice of “security” over “democracy” that Obama rejected during his “Moment of Opportunity.” While Saleh started as Washington’s only option in Yemen - or “the Devil we know,” as Riyadh calls him - his behavior over the previous years and months demonstrates that he is no friend of America. Only an opportunistic and desperate dictator.
Time to pop Saleh's bubble
A besieged embassy appeared to wake the Obama administration from its daze. Although Obama himself remained silent, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was forced to express her “outrage” after urging Saleh to sign the GCC’s proposal. However the shock quickly wore off. While The Washington Post reported that the White House is finally considering UN sanctions against Saleh, the State Department has refused to provide details on “all the options” under review.
Given the potential for America to end up on the wrong end of these sanctions, the threat appears to be no more than that. This move isn’t sincere so much as begrudged - Washington still won’t let go of Saleh willingly. The administration is only threatening to withhold U.S. aid, which continues to flow despite Saleh’s violent behavior, until he signs the GCC’s proposal. The State Department's Mark Toner insisted on Monday and again on Tuesday that Saleh sign "immediately." On Wednesday he simply declared, "We believe that the GCC proposal is a good one and that Saleh should sign it."
Except the GCC poses as a crux of conflict; inking Saleh’s signature is a red herring. In a counter-statement released by the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), one of Yemen’s leading coalitions “reaffirms our rejection of the initiative,” and denounced the initiative for giving “Ali Saleh cover to continue in the exercise of his inhuman crimes against his own people.” While President Obama sips tea with the Queen of England, his administration is now using Saleh’s mini “civil war” to force the GCC upon the protesters against their will.
“We applauded the leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council in seeking an orderly and peaceful resolution to the crisis,” Obama later declared alongside UK Prime Minister David Cameron, “and we call on President Saleh to move immediately on his commitment to transfer power.”
Considering how flippantly U.S. officials throw the phrase around, it bears constant repeating that the GCC’s proposal will not “put Yemen on a positive path.” This “power transfer” will suppress the revolution’s aspirations and prolong Yemen’s crisis, generating the same tribal conflict that broke out after Sunday. If Saleh signed “immediately,” he still gets another 30 days minimum to plot and scheme. How many times must the Obama administration burn itself on Saleh’s duplicity?
Spokesman Ahmed al-Soufi responded by reaffirming Saleh’s intentions: "I will not leave power and I will not leave Yemen. I don't take orders from outside."
Instead of criticizing his behavior before recommitting to the same failed policy, the Obama administration must go beyond cutting Saleh’s support - it must bury the GCC’s proposal. The revolution's demands are non-negotiable and hardened in the face of Saleh’s defiance. A completely new document forged by popular coalitions, with assistance from the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and tribal authorities, must fill the political void. Protesters want Saleh to resign immediately and face trial like Hosni Mubarak. Yet on the same day that Egyptian protesters faced down the U.S.-backed military council and brought Mubarak to court, the State Department urged Saleh to accept immunity through the GCC.
Yemen’s justice is not for Washington or anyone else to decide, and protesters fear that Saleh would maintain his rule through the GPC. Dissolving his party, or else neutralizing it during the transition, is vital to fulfilling the revolution’s objective of a free and equal Yemen.
Cutting U.S. support does present several problems completely unrelated to AQAP, Riyadh's own resistance being one of them. For years Saleh has also courted China and Russia, Yemen’s second and third trading partners after the U.S, who in turn laid low as Washington held the dominant position. The revolution's vacuum opened an opportunity to slip in, with Russia particularly defending Yemen’s "political crisis" against “foreign interference.” Even if Washington halts its funds and levies sanctions on Saleh, Moscow and Beijing could block the UN's vote and provide economic and military aid. The price for abandoning Yemen’s political and information spheres is running extraordinarily high.
However these possible reactions cannot stop the Obama administration from ultimately choosing right in Yemen. A sustainable strategy against AQAP - and a fundamentally moral policy - will unconditionally support the pro-democracy movement in their quest to modernize Yemen. It will break away of Saudi Arabia's counter-revolution, and it won't succumb to counterproductive unilateral strikes on AQAP. So many Yemenis have waited too long for this moment, yet Washington is suicidally trying to hold them back. The widening cracks in U.S. policy have already refuted it, and Saleh will eventually fall with or without foreign support.
Who wants to follow him off of the cliff?