June 19, 2011

Drunk Droning In Yemen

Rarely does U.S. foreign policy crash with such vicious impact, and rarely have so few people paid attention to the emergency. Those drones making regular scans over Yemen cruise inside a paradox, simultaneously exposed to the naked eye and veiled beneath layers of secrecy. Many observers debating their legality miss the local issues at hand, while a powerless minority cautions that Yemen is set to further destabilize under the Obama administration’s panic.

Watching the White House’s delayed response feels too similar to riding backseat with an intoxicated driver.

Libya’s legality isn’t overshadowing Yemen at random - anything to hide one of the weakest links in U.S. foreign policy. Locked behind the support of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, President Barack Obama issued his last personal statement three months ago, after the heinous March 18th sniper massacre in At-Taghir (Change Square). His “Moment of Opportunity” raised and dashed hopes with a single sentence. High-level U.S. official avoid Yemen like an epidemic, only entering briefly when its violence spikes, and the State Department's script remains unchanged despite Saleh’s proliferating war crimes. The only outreach runs through the proxy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), manipulated by Washington and Riyadh to salvage Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC).

After months of stonewalling and two weeks of health watch in Saudi Arabia, White House spokesman Jay Carney could only mutter amid reports of his return, “Our policy on this remains the same, which is we believe that President Saleh needs to keep his commitment to sign the GCC-brokered agreement that would begin the transition immediately. We think that is in the best interests of the people of Yemen, and we continue to work with our partners in the region to help make that happen.”

He responded when pressed on Saleh’s future, “The issue isn’t about his return.”

Contrary to the standard U.S. line, Saleh never sincerely committed to the GCC’s favorable proposal, instead buying three extra months before escaping an internal assassination. Nor does Yemen’s pro-democracy movement, in a quest for total regime change, believe the proposal suits “their best interests.” The Obama administration assisted Saleh and Saudi Arabia in freezing Yemen’s revolutionaries out of the political process for this very reason. Saleh's "corrupt regime has used your initiative as a cover for its crimes against us,” warned a recent statement from several street coalitions.

Meanwhile "acting” president and current Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi refuses to discuss the proposal until Saleh’s “imminent” return, leading the popular opposition to reject any negotiations that don’t begin with his immediate resignation. A transitional council of six-to-nine months would give way to a national election, shunning the GCC’s unrealistic 60-day deadline.

Right now U.S. contact with the streets is near zero. All pro-democracy protesters know firsthand is that America has undermined their revolution in the name of al-Qaeda, a plan that fits into wider militarization of the region. They knew before anyone else that Washington is running drones right over their heads. MQ-9 Reapers are no secret. They are America’s public face in Yemen - the face of death.

"We knew the Yemeni government would allow US to attack our areas after the death of [al Qa'eda leader Osama] Bin Laden," said Salem Sakheer, a resident of the volatile Shabwa governorate. "We have a weak government now and the blood of Yemenis will be spilled without any questioning."

Ignoring a failed policy spanning over a decade, the Obama administration continues to force military escalation through the GCC’s proposal. Suddenly a future “anti-American government” - millions of revolutionaries - is being openly admitted and circumvented. Yemen’s next government will oppose U.S. military operations and potentially support al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and must be bypassed. Thus an “orderly transition of power” provides the only method of safeguarding counter-terror operations.

That U.S. support for Saleh caused this hostility is taken for granted.

Perhaps America could simply support Yemen’s peaceful, democratic movement instead of fear it; both the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and youth coalitions have vowed to fight AQAP. However this policy would compromise what Washington and Riyadh truly seek: unilateral operations rubber stamped by a compliant regime. The Wall Street Journal reported nothing out of the ordinary when it detailed this arrangement, except for the fundamental difference of an internal drone base. The longer version would finish under an unpopular Saleh or, if he actually followed through on his promise to resign, his son Ahmed, who serves as the Pentagon's liaison between Yemen’s murderous Republican Guard. Scheduled for completion within the next two years, the CIA reportedly accelerated its time-table to eight months.

“Because America has invested so heavily in Yemen’s security forces, it now seems that a transition to democracy will depend on whether Washington believes that investment will remain secure,” Tawakkol Karman, Yemen’s preeminent female activist, warned in The New York Times. “The establishment of a new government will therefore be contingent on American officials’ approving the country’s new leaders. Sadly, it seems likely that the United States will support figures from the old regime rather than allow a transitional government approved by the people to take control of Yemen.”

“This would be a grave mistake.”

The base’s shorter time-frame and all subsequent operations now hinge on maintaining influence through the GCC’s proposal, and propping up an authoritarian regime in the process. Instead of rethinking this policy after being forced off course, the Obama administration has belligerently accelerated a one-dimensional response. Within Yemen's power vacuum, according to one official, drones have struck 15 times in the Shabwa and Abyan governorates since June 1st. Beyond local opposition, U.S. strategy also remains mixed up in the GPC and JMP themselves.

GPC spokesman Tareq Shami told reporters, "The Yemeni government did not allow the US to conduct random attacks in the country, though it has agreed to cooperate in the fight against al Qa'eda.”

Two months of fighting in southern Yemen proved beyond doubt that Saleh exploits AQAP’s presence to manipulate foreign powers. He’s also running proxy militias that battle other militants in the area, both of which are then hyped as AQAP. Saleh's regime survives by denial and routinely switches sides. His standard policy denounces America for popular consumption while accepting Western aid and political protection. He accused Obama and "Tel Aviv" of fomenting “creative chaos” as Yemen’s revolution picked up speed in early March; not long afterward he began feeding new information on AQAP commanders, including the misfire on cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (or so Saleh claimed).

Locally to internationally, drone operations have jammed Yemen's political process at every level. Hadi and the GCC’s proposal are now being exploited to restart counter-terror operations, which the Pentagon briefly interrupted after Saleh’s U.S.-supplied crackdown drew too much attention. Yet his son and nephews continue to target protesters and refuse to cede power, invalidating U.S. claims of a transition to Hadi. Worse still, the JMP has avoided condemning drone operations out of fear that the administration will cut its thin life-line.

The White House and Pentagon are conspiring with an untrustworthy GPC and blackmailing the JMP to suffocate the youth’s revolution, grid-locking Yemen’s crisis in order to justify future hegemony. This toxic combination of political opposition and military escalation is sending negative shock waves throughout the revolution.

Yemenis had more than enough of “divide and conquer” under Saleh. They don't need U.S. policy to validate every strain of anti-Americanism: security and economic interests over democracy, supporting semi-friendly dictators in order to preserve the status quo, an endless war against al-Qaeda. With Saleh’s regime manufacturing conflict and enabling AQAP through strategic withdrawals, the Pentagon is going in bigger than the individual conflict demands. Yemen is caught in the grander scheme of terrorism and geopolitical security - and Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution - to the point that its people’s freedom is disregarded as a burden. That’s why al-Qaeda mocked America’s self-induced fall while honoring Ayman al-Zawahiri: “We encourage the people of Islam to rise up and continue the struggle, persistence and devotion until all the corrupt and oppressive regimes imposed by the West are gone.”

In choosing security over democracy, U.S. policy will produce neither for a people who desperately deserve both.

The door hasn’t completely shut on the GCC’s proposal. The immediate problem is that few Yemenis know what it entails after multiple rewrites. Many popular coalitions might be willing to accept if the GCC grants the pro-democracy movement's legitimate demands. The JMP is also threatening to “let the people do what they want,” according to spokesman Mohammed Qahtan, if the U.S. doesn’t push for Saleh’s immediate resignation and his family’s trial. This will require a 180 degree shift in the U.S.-Saudi position, which continues to harden behind the remnants of Saleh’s regime.

“The Americans and Europeans wanted to hastily close the Yemeni file and move on as if it was Tunisia or Egypt,” Hisham Sharaf Abdullah, the country’s trade and industry minister, employing reverse psychology to The Financial Times. “Our response: ‘Not before the president’s return,’ and we shot millions of bullets in the air on Wednesday to make this message clear. They got the message.”

Is the Obama administration conscious enough to get its meaning though?

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