May 6, 2011
U.S. Targeting al-Awlaki Instead of Saleh
In a brazen attempt to justify drone operations in Yemen, The Wall Street Journal first reported that Thursday’s strike targeted and missed Anwar al-Awlaki. A U.S. official subsequently confirmed to CNN that a Predator scrapped a truck belonging to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) leading cleric, killing two aides in his place. Another source (or possibly the same) told CBS News, "We were hoping it was him.”
al-Awlaki is a leading contributor to AQAP’s Inspire magazine, a color spread that offers jihadist tutorials and often contains threats against the U.S. and European homelands.
Leaking this information is designed to create credibility behind U.S. military operations in Yemen. Instead of rapidly escalating drone strikes in an unstable country ruled by an unpopular, Western-supported dictator, the White House only reserved action for the highest targets. al-Awlaki has been heralded as a potential replacement for Osama bin Laden, faulty as this prediction is, thus the White House and Pentagon (which carried out the strike instead of the CIA) tried to cut off two heads to show the U.S. public.
Notoriously mute when it comes to drones strikes, Washington displays no such inhibition when it perceives an advantage.
Yet nothing relating to bin Laden and AQAP remains on the surface for long. As U.S. counter-terrorism officials and a collaborating media breathlessly hype AQAP’s threat in Yemen, they also steer away from the revolution currently engulfing the country. Despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public campaign to ride the Arab Spring after bin laden’s death, the U.S. blackout over Yemen continued unabated throughout the week. Washington remains committed to an unpopular power transfer through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a transfer authored by U.S., E.U. and Saudi diplomats with heavy input from Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). Postponing his exit and giving him immunity naturally disgusted the streets.
Now, as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh again refuses to resign after 33 years in office, al-Awlaki has suddenly become the big story in America. Anything to distract from the rants of Washington’s only “ally” against AQAP.
Countering the opposition’s “Friday of Honoring the South,” the latest of many “Friday” marches, Saleh held his own “Friday of Security and Stability” at Al-Sabe'en Square. Yemen’s embattled president reaffirmed the constitutional legitimacy of his 2006 election as “the masses” declared, “yes for legitimacy and no for chaos and destruction.” The titles of his countermarches illuminate the direction Saleh is trending: “the Friday of Solidarity,” ”the Friday of Tolerance,” “the Friday of Harmony,” “the Friday of Dialogue,” “the Friday of Conciliation,” and the “Friday of Constitutional Legitimacy.”
“I can assure you that I will resist,” Saleh told a crowd in Sanaa’s Sabbine Square after Friday prayers. “I would like to salute you for your kind feelings and adherence to the constitutional legitimacy... yes to legitimacy, no to chaos, no to sabotage, no to retaliation, no to plots by those outlaws... bandits, murderers.”
Although Saleh’s actions have repeatedly revealed his intent to gridlock the GCC-U.S. initiative, his rhetoric provides further confirmation that he expects to remain in power his term expires in 2013. After toying with the GCC throughout April, Saleh balked at signing off as Yemen’s president and holding a ceremony in Riyadh. Saleh and GPC officials also refused to drop a U.S.-inserted clause that demonstrations must come to an end, and instead blame Yemen’s Joint Oppositional Parties (JMP) for sowing “chaos.”
"I will remain steadfast like mountains, facing backward, reactionary and terrorist projects," Saleh told his remaining supporters. "Those (opposition) lead a backward project, but there would be no place for projects of revenge, anarchy and sabotage... These actions are part of the scheme of chaos-loving parties who start with cutting off the tongue, then legs, hands and lastly cutting off heads.”
His opinion of the JMP hasn’t stopped him from negotiating with Yemen’s only political opposition. On the contrary, Saleh has found the JMP useful in stalling for time and scapegoating his own ills, as the coalition must go along with his ploys or risk further blame. Whether out of political self-interest or a sincere belief that the GCC represents Saleh’s only possible exit, the JMP has clung to his roller-coaster throughout its never-ending corkscrew.
"We call on Gulf Cooperation Council states to put pressure on the president to take all necessary measures to force him to sign the agreement," said JMP spokesman Mohammed Qahtan.
The GCC has hung on too, to preserve its own credibility and to delay the effects of regime change across the Gulf. On Thursday GCC Secretary General Abdul Latif Al-Zayani reaffirmed the bloc’s determination to peacefully resolve Yemen’s crisis, ignoring his personal rejection from the previous weekend. Al-Zayani outlined his new plan for the GPC and JMP to choose 30 officials, 15 from each side, to sign the U.S.-GCC document. He’s also moved the signing ceremony to Sana’a, in accordance with Saleh’s wishes. The JMP may be able to live with these terms - but not the final amendment.
"This evening we received a new agreement plan and were surprised to see it had been amended according to President Saleh's demand," said an opposition leader told Reuters on Friday. "They changed the title of the deal from 'Accord between the opposition and the government' to 'Accord between the General People's Congress (ruling party) and its allies and the Joint Meeting Parties bloc (opposition coalition)’.”
This clause holds the potential to spark a total meltdown of the US.-GCC initiative.
So where does that leave Washington? Hyping AQAP while simultaneously ignoring Saleh’s hostile behavior, the White House binged on bin Laden, his impact in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (when time afforded) attempted to obstruct reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The State Department’s Mark Toner ignored Yemen all week, briefings that are oddly posted on the U.S. Embassy’s website. Judging by its positive reaction to Saleh’s “willingness to peacefully transfer power” - and premature praise of a GCC resolution - the Obama administration is liable to congratulate an agreement at any time.
There does exist, however, a forceful refutation of the negative perceptions surrounding the White House’s response to revolution in the Middle East.
“Much has been said about the alleged conflict between our democratic values and our desire for stability in the Middle East,” argue Tamara C. Wittes and Michael H. Posner of the State Department. “This is a false dichotomy. The United States has a profound interest in regional stability, and we believe that respect for universal human rights and the principle that governments are accountable to their people are in fact key components of long-term stability.”
In a Thursday briefing entitled, Shifting Sands: Political Transitions in the Middle East, Part 2, the Assistant Secretaries for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor allocated more time than Yemen has seen in weeks. Why would the White House send two underlings to deliver this message after a seemingly endless blanket of silence, especially someone in charge of human rights? Because their remarks merely piece together leftober statements from the White House and State Department.
“In Yemen, the United States supports a peaceful and orderly transfer of power in accordance with the Yemeni people’s demand for better governance that is more responsive to their needs and aspirations. A solution to Yemen's problems will not be found through security measures, but through political dialogue, free elections, and more transparent and accountable governance. We urge the participation of all sides, including youth, in a dialogue to reach a solution that will be supported by the Yemeni people. Yemeni citizens, like people everywhere, have the right to demonstrate peacefully, to assemble, and to express themselves without fear of violence, arrest or death. We strongly urge all sides to refrain from violence.”
This statement is factually false on multiple levels. Washington has consistently supported an “orderly” transition in Yemen without the “peaceful” component, a recipe for disorder. Together with Riyadh and Saleh, the Obama administration has excluded the youth from the GCC’s political dialogue in favor of the manipulatable JMP. The GCC itself was summoned to circumvent the street protesters. Under its initiative, Saleh’s GPC will assume majority control of the transitional council, giving it a head start on corrupting a national election.
The clause that aimed to end demonstrations also surfaced after U.S. and EU diplomats tried to placate Saleh’s constantly evolving demands. The JMP eventually had to squeeze assurances out of Washington that allowed protesters to continue marching. Negotiating with Saleh is similar to negotiating with a super villain.
U.S. assistance is hardly two-pronged as Wittes and Posner claim: “we provide security and counterterrorism support to combat the immediate threat of terrorism, while delivering economic and technical support directly to local communities to help counter long-term drivers of instability, such as unemployment, poverty, and ineffective governance.” One prong - the counterterrorism support - sticks out further than the other. Only in 2010 did humanitarian aid catch up to military aid, a move that followed widespread criticism of an overly militarized strategy.
Furthermore, this “spear” requires at least three prongs: political reform at the top, economic and social development in between, and military operations at the bottom. Propping up Saleh’s regime with full knowledge of its corruption inherently minimizes economic progress, fueling the “long-term drivers of instability.”
In short, no new information is offered during these officials’ testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Middle East and South Asia. U.S. policy hasn’t fundamentally changed since Yemen’s revolution began, despite its many cosmetic alterations. The GCC was called in to douse the fire once Saleh’s tribal support evaporated. Now, as he continues to stonewall and contort the GCC’s document, Wittes and Posner blandly declare, “The United States has welcomed the Gulf Coordination Council’s (GCC) initiative for supporting political transition in Yemen.”
That’s part of the problem.
On the other hand Saleh is positioned as well as a besieged dictator can be, with the U.S. and UN continuing to back the GCC’s initiative. He knows the West doesn’t have many other options - he barely needs his U.S. immunity. Bin Laden’s death has further inspired Saleh to hold onto power, convinced that he can twist Washington’s arm with AQAP. He's never demonstrated a sincere intent to resign, leaving Washington and Riyadh’s attempt to evacuate him insincere at its core.
No one, however, should doubt America’s willingness to launch a Predator.