On the eve of President Barack Obama’s overview of revolution in the Middle East and Africa, Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) delivered an unusually welcoming letter to his desk. While encouraging him to take a more proactive position on their side, CCYRC appealed to America’s democratic values in a savvy, upbeat tone. Despite a two-month silence dating to March 18th, Yemeni protesters realize they can’t afford to alienate such a powerful friend so deep in their revolution - even if that friend doesn’t necessarily exist yet.
Turning Obama to their side keeps their hopes alive. They don’t have much of a choice when facing down Riyadh, Moscow and Beijing by themselves.
We do not have to be as kind though. “Breaking news” of an agreement between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) predictably flamed out as a false alarm. Leaked hours before John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief, issued a statement in favor of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal, the impossibility of a sudden agreement was readily apparent. Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the JMP have drifted further and further apart over the past weeks, leaving the GCC scrambling to keep up.
One cannot flip a switch and produce an agreement from thin air. Only artificial pressure could even produce this rumor.
However Brennan’s statements amount to something much worse than gossip. Hyperbole doesn’t appear to be at work when we compare the White House’s response a crime. This was political posturing at its worst: gains for the few at the masses’ expense. Already lining up Israel-Palestinian negotiations, economic packages for Egypt and Tunisia, and condemnation for Libya and Syria, Obama thought he could crown his speech with a breakthrough in Yemen. Instead he hit Saleh’s wall after GCC leadership left an uncertain Sana’a empty-handed, exposing Washington's own red hands.
Yesterday’s events demonstrate that the White House remains deaf to Yemen’s popular revolution, which largely opposes the GCC’s intervention and its U.S.-Saudi proposal. This proposal offers Saleh another 30 days to stall, immunity for his family’s crimes against the Yemeni people (enabled by U.S. training and equipment), a transitional council composed of a majority GPC, and a clause that pro-democracy protesters return home. Facing their own political suicide, JMP officials balked at the distorted proposal after Saleh warped it beyond sensibility.
Sure enough, GPC officials quickly emerged vowing that Saleh won’t step down until the “security situation” returns to normal. Again security comes before politics - the driver of insecurity. Sounds like U.S. policy. By sending a counter-terrorism official to do his work, Obama reinforced the impression that America only cares about terrorism in Yemen.
Revolution is still considered a distraction, not an opportunity, in the post-bin Laden world.
The administration's response to Yemen’s revolution equals the futility of its counter-terrorism strategy against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Silent support of Saleh has fueled Yemen’s political and security vacuum, a death spiral that the GCC cannot pull out of. Neither the White House nor State Department even followed up on Brennan’s statement after the deal collapsed, and the flippant manner in which it was made intensified Washington’s insensitivity. This is fourth-generation warfare (4GW) at its worst.
Obama’s tone, and to what degree he believes his administration is succeeding, will yield the latest indication of his grip on reality. Remorse, or a lack thereof, is pivotal to impressions. Obama will surely preach U.S. values while arguing that the people themselves must decide their future. Although a sound policy in theory, it has yet to be applied in Yemen and elsewhere in the region. U.S. foreign policy remains consistently slow and contradictory.
In places like Yemen it is obstructive, counterproductive and immoral. People will die in part because of Obama’s decision to advocate a dead GCC proposal - Saleh appears ready to lash out at any moment.
Everything Obama says today must be carefully considered. His words will define his presidency and redefine the views of those who, for desperate reasons, still keep the faith in him. At some point this faith will run out.