June 3, 2011

Sobering Up From Ali Abdullah Saleh

The Obama administration suffers from an addiction problem: dependency, abuse, relapse. Being hooked on Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s embattled ruler of 33 years, detrimentally affects the lives of countless people. Some Yemenis have died, many more have bled and nearly all dream of a brighter future.

In ignoring these problems and fulfilling Saleh’s own dependency, U.S. foreign policy hit rock bottom. Now it's time to get clean and rebound.

U.S. officials insist that Yemen’s non-violent revolution is debunking al-Qaeda’s violent ideology. However the month since Obama’s bin Laden’s death has validated his underlying narrative of corrupt Western puppets, and President Barack Obama’s missed his “Moment of Opportunity” by reinforcing Yemen’s isolation. The “realism” of supporting Saleh evaporated after al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) capitalized on his weak and unpopular regime. Saleh is also suspected of enabling AQAP’s growth during Yemen’s revolution by withdrawing his U.S.-trained forces, creating artificial opportunities to strike back and “prove his worth.”

Pro-democracy protesters wanting nothing to do with al-Qaeda are increasingly outraged that their peaceful revolution is so casually ignored. They’re also demoralized over the U.S. media’s hyper-focus on al-Qaeda and civil war - two threats manufactured by a besieged Saleh. Yemen’s Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), a leading street coalition, shrewdly observed, “American foreign policy always seems to be short sited because it is based on what is believed rather than the facts on the ground.”

Contrary to the belief that the White House backed away from Saleh in early April, the ensuing U.S.-sponsored proposal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has consistently favored Saleh and his regime. Before the GCC itself pronounced the proposal dead last week - after Saleh interrupted a signing ceremony at the UAE Embassy and attacked his own Hashid tribe - the strongmen was due to enjoy a 30-day reprieve until transferring power. The proposal also granted immunity for Saleh and his family members, several of which head his U.S.-funded security apparatus, and would allocate 50% of a transition council to his ruling General People’s Party (GPC).

By gradually reversing open support for Saleh - Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised his cooperation as late as March - the Obama administration created a shallow political illusion of joining Yemen's pro-democracy movement. U.S. policy coordinated with Saleh’s own stall tactics: pandering to the youth while politically isolating them. In vivid contrast to international efforts targeting Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, including UN sanctions and recommendation to the Human Rights Commission, the administration continues to avoid hard tactics to squeeze Saleh from power.

Deploying John Brennan to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is the latest attempt to unjustly extract him, rather than leave his fate in the Yemeni people’s hands. The White House’s counter-terror chief has pressured Saleh numerous times in vain, and sends the wrong message during what should be a diplomatic mission. After condemning the horrific crackdown on Taiz’s Freedom Square, the White House explained of Brennan’s trip, “These tragic events underscore the need for President Saleh to sign the GCC-brokered transition proposal and to begin the transfer of power immediately.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed this position offhand during remarks with Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota.

The Obama administration currently supports a dead and illegitimate proposal backed solely by itself and Riyadh, a position that is draining the last of America's credibility in Yemen. A “peaceful and orderly” transition, which Saleh never actually "committed" to, is a mythical beast under GCC terms. Negotiated over the heads of millions of protesters through the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the Western-backed proposal encountered immediate rejection from the leading popular coalitions. The reality is that Yemen’s revolutionaries were locked out of negotiations because they rejected the GCC’s intervention outright.

Yemen's popular position runs counter to the GCC-U.S. proposal: Saleh’s immediate resignation, prosecution of all those involved in human rights abuses and neutralization of the GPC. Protesters want Western governments to seize any of Saleh’s international funds, then politically suffocate him through the UN Security Council and International Criminal Court. They also request emergency humanitarian aid. These measures are considered practical in comparison to the West’s own “pragmatic” steps. With former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak scheduled for an August trial, Yemen’s revolutionaries will accept nothing less than total and unconditional regime change.

Never a true friend of America, Saleh is now exposing his lunacy to the world at large. Yemen’s strongman functioned as steroids for U.S. policy - a quick fix with deadly long-term consequences. Granting the revolution’s demands for a free and equal Yemen is the best option to neutralize AQAP, though it will force Washington to confront its skeletons. The U.S. position, as a base platform, must abandon the GCC’s hollow proposal and sever military ties with Saleh. Having finally bowed to street pressure, the JMP’s Mohamed Salem Basandwa forwarded a letter to the international community through the UAE Embassy - just in time for Brennan’s visit. This letter labeled the GCC's initiative as a “death sentence” for Yemen’s revolution.

“The Saleh regime should be held responsible for killing the GCC plan and its attempts to drive the country to violence and state terrorism as an alternative to the efforts by Yemen's neighbors and friends to contain the situation.”

To truly move Yemen forward, U.S. and GCC diplomats must correct their fatal error of freezing the youth out of the negotiating process. Sending a senior counter-terrorism official to Saudi Arabia is wholly counterproductive. U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein has also spent more time with Saleh than the protesters, a bias that hasn't gone unnoticed. The CCYRC and other coalitions endured minimal contact with U.S. diplomats over the last two months, and the CCYRC succinctly clarified, “The US embassy does not dialogue with us.”

Yemen’s revolutionaries will ultimately achieve their goals with or without international support. The Obama administration would be wise to believe in them over Saleh - and no leap of faith is required.

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