June 4, 2011

U.S. Policy Jammed On Yemen's Revolution

Nearly two weeks have elapsed since Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s teetering dictator of 33 years, picked a fight with his own Hashid tribe. 24 hours hadn’t passed since his “besieged embassy” act, which Saleh used to scuttle the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) final attempt to transfer power. Since then multiple massacres and war crimes have occurred under the umbrella of manufactured civil war and al-Qaeda’s expansion.

Clever as he may be, Saleh is widely believed to have lost his grip on reality. The Obama administration isn’t far behind.

On Friday, in complete defiance of Saleh’s brutality and the demands of Yemen’s revolutionaries, the White House repeated its standard call to accept a dead GCC proposal. While the U.S. and many parts of the international media continue to report “pressure” from the Obama administration, this pressure is nearly as artificial as Saleh’s self-induced “civil war.” The GCC deal is a rotting corpse - the streets buried it alive before Saleh defiled it - and Yemen’s tribal network has closed ranks around the youth's revolution. Rather than divide the country, the political situation stands as one clique versus the masses. This equilibrium could shatter after Saleh’s fall, but the U.S. media has grossly misreported Yemen’s revolution.

After Friday's mass funeral procession, Imam Taha al-Mutawakil told his audience that Saleh, "wants to overturn this revolution and show the world that it is a conflict between (Hashid chieftain Sheikh Sadiq) al-Ahmar."

The chasm between perception and reality in Yemen stems in part from the Obama administration’s silence over the last five months. Cover-up, to be specific. Under the Pentagon’s watchful eye, the White House has scrambled to hide U.S. support for Saleh and potential complicity in his Republican Guard, now attacking tribal fighters and peaceful protesters. Despite Washington’s blaring terror alarms and Yemen’s position atop The Economist’s “Shoethrower Index,” the country fell below Egypt, Libya and Syria in priority, neutralizing extensive media coverage.

One reason rises above a host of contenders to explain why Washington fears Yemen's revolution: AQAP is one of the weakest links in U.S. foreign policy. The revolution has been made to feel like an afterthought because of strategic deficiency on the administration's part, conceded by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in March. A five-week blackout in the White House and State Department’s briefings exists between April 18th and May 23rd, the Monday after U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein was trapped in the UAE Embassy in Sana'a. Since then the U.S. position hasn’t moved even though Yemen’s situation is rapidly escalating.

Relative to Saleh’s own maneuvers, U.S. policy isn’t treading water but drowning.

More than two months ago, President Barack Obama himself entered the fray after a horrific sniper attack on Change Square. He hasn’t returned since announcing, “It is more important than ever for all sides to participate in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people, and provides a peaceful, orderly and democratic path to a stronger and more prosperous nation.”

The ensuing GCC’s “30-60” deal unfolded in shadows. Negotiated during the April/May black hole, U.S. and Saudi officials exploited the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Yemen’s political opposition, to freeze out the street movement. Few details were offered, even the JMP was misled at the cost of its remaining credibility, and Yemen sank into deeper conflict. Nevertheless, on May 18th, John Brennan phoned Saleh to inform him, “this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform.”

As of Friday the Obama administration (and European Union) refuses to open its eyes to rivers of blood flowing from peaceful sit-ins. Faced with a "civil war" and an assassination attempt on Saleh, the administration synchronized its response in a disturbing display of group-think. Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism, already tried to jumpstart the dead GCC proposal in Saudi Arabia and UAE, seemingly to no avail. Undeterred, U.S. spokesmen Jay Carney, Tommy Vietor and Mark Toner repeated a phrase they have likely memorized by now.

Using Saleh’s assassination attempt to rebuke the Hashid tribe, the White House issued a statement calling, “on all sides to cease hostilities immediately and to pursue an orderly and peaceful process of transferring political power as called for in the GCC-brokered agreement.”

Over a month ago the White House, “applauded the announcements by the Yemeni Government and the opposition that they have accepted the GCC-brokered agreement to resolve the political crisis in a peaceful and orderly manner.”

Meanwhile at the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on May 23rd, “we believe that President Saleh still has the ability and the opportunity to sign this initiative and break this deadlock.” Thus the administration put the crisis “in Saleh’s hands.” On May 31st, after security forces bulldozed Taiz’s “Freedom Square,” Toner reiterated, “Again, this is a situation where there’s a path forward, and President Saleh just needs to live up to commitments he’s made to accept the GCC’s agreement and to move Yemen forward.”

Each time U.S. officials point out Saleh’s reneging, only to repeat his “commitment to transfer power.” Ignoring hundreds of casualties and Saleh’s violent struggle to survive, Toner said yesterday, “And again, our efforts are trying to convince President Saleh that this agreement is the best way forward, it’s the way – it puts – it charts a path, if you will, for Yemen to move out of this period of crisis and to move towards a democratic transition.”

“Clearly, the deteriorating situation in Yemen can only be addressed through a peaceful and orderly transfer of power,” he said today. “And so we, again, call on President Saleh to move immediately to heed the calls of the Yemeni people.”

Informed that a government spokesman just blamed Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for “inciting assassination,” Toner remarked “that’s absurd.”

He continued in equally absurd fashion, “Again, our focus has been in working with the government and with President Saleh in support of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s proposal. And again, that, we believe, charts the best way forward into something that President Saleh, as we’ve said repeatedly over the past week or so, should live up to his commitment and sign.”

The GCC is only serving as political cover to a clueless and helpless administration; neither Saleh, the JMP nor Yemen’s revolutionaries accept the proposal. Particularly disturbing is how the GCC’s proposal “heeds the calls of the Yemeni people,” contrary to the mood in Yemen's streets. Saleh himself likes to pander to the “youth revolution” while slandering the JMP - his own negotiating partner - and the White House has sadly adopted his tactic.

"I salute our armed forces and the security forces for standing up firmly to confront this challenge by an outlaw gang that has nothing to do with the so-called youth revolution," Saleh said in a recording released after the assassination attempt.

“We urge all sides to heed the wishes of the Yemeni people, whose aspirations include peace, reform, and prosperity,” Carney echoed from the same script.

Unbroken interplay between Saleh and White House demonstrates the residual connections that continue to gunk up Yemen’s revolution. Human rights abuses transpire in obscurity. The charred corpses in Taiz, products of water cannons converted into gasoline flamethrowers, would have provoked international condemnation in Libya or Syria. Instead the massacre was barely acknowledged relative to the scale of the crime, shocking Yemen’s pro-democracy movement.

At the political level, Saleh has never intended to sign the GCC’s proposal, instead manipulating it to stall for time. After manufacturing a civil war with his tribe and allowing AQAP to operate freely in the south, U.S. officials appeal to Saleh’s “commitment” and a “peaceful and orderly transition.” Washington has and continues to follow an irrational dictator rather than lead the free world.

“I don’t have anything beyond what we’ve said before,” Carney concluded on Friday, “which is that we obviously condemn the violence on both sides, that we hope that there will be and that there should be a negotiated settlement in Yemen, and that we believe that President Saleh should sign the agreement transferring power.”

Still confusing a revolution for a political crisis to be “negotiated” and “settled.” This statement alone indicates that Obama administration, after five months to prepare for a post-Saleh Yemen, remains lost in the waves of the Arab Spring.

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