June 8, 2011

White House Treating Yemen’s Revolutionaries as Afterthoughts

U.S. officials claim to have their “best interests” at heart, that “a peaceful and orderly transition... respects the aspirations of the Yemeni people.” From an air-conditioned bubble 7,000 miles from the broiling streets, they go so far as to insist Yemen’s revolutionaries want this themselves.

Then act like they barely exist.

“It’s important to keep the focus on where it should be,” State spokesman Mark Toner argued on Tuesday, “which is on the Yemeni people and this is really – these are decisions that they need to make. What we’re calling for is that the transition should begin for an orderly political process, and ultimately one that addresses the concerns that we’ve seen raised by the many protestors and demonstrators over these past weeks. But it’s really up to the government and the oppositions to -- the opposition members to get together and begin that process.”

The masses that Washington claims to speak for refuse to budge from their sit-ins around the country. With Vice President al-Hadi refusing power, Saleh’s son Ahmad retaining authority of Yemen's security forces, and a U.S.-Saudi “transition” encircling the streets, they realize the need to eliminate the vacuum that external forces are working independently to fill. Rather than cede their revolution to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal, which would grant Saleh immunity and muck up the transition through his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), they demand an immediate a transitional coalition composed of publicly-approved figures.

Whether the GCC schedules an election in 90 days or two weeks, as an updated version suggests, protesters wish to construct a political framework for 6-12 months before holding an election.

Contrary to infrequent public announcements from the Obama administration, Yemen’s revolutionaries have been cut out of the political loop throughout their own uprising. The U.S. position stands solidly behind a proxy GCC proposal, a “power transfer” negotiated between Ali Abdullah Saleh, the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Washington and Riyadh. Although the popular opposition largely rejects the GCC’s interference as bias towards Saleh’s regime, U.S. officials falsely and shamelessly declare that Yemen’s pro-democracy movement backs the corrupted proposal.

U.S. policy in Yemen bears a resemblance to Saleh’s condition: half charred, full of shrapnel and bleeding internally.

While U.S. officials continue pressuring “acting” President al-Hadi and the JMP to work together, the JMP has threatened to join the popular coalition so long as the GPC insists on Saleh’s return. Ultimately America is trying to cobble together a new government out of two parties that don’t want to work together - or adequately represent the streets. “A peaceful and orderly transition... consistent with Yemen’s own constitution,” is but a leftover, stale argument from Egypt’s revolution. Such a “logical” argument flies in the face of popular demands for a new constitution.

No White House statement or high-level U.S. officials greeted Yemen’s revolution on Wednesday, leaving Toner to remark, “I think we’ve had a consistent message both publicly and privately with regard to Yemen, which is that they need to – and now with Saleh’s departure for Saudi Arabia where he continues to receive medical treatment, there’s – this isn’t a time for inaction. There is a government that remains in place there, and they need to seize the moment and move forward.”

So “consistent” is U.S. policy that it reached the pinnacle of inaction in Yemen. Paralyzed by a consistently counterproductive strategy, the Obama administration kept consistently silent as the revolution began to boil. Once this silence was broken by Saleh’s continual stalling and human rights abuses, the administration graduated to slow, repetitive and out-of-touch statements. In regards to al-Hadi, Yemen's acting president in name only, Saleh’s cabinet is heavily divided on how to move forward. His son and nephews remain in charge of his security forces, which at this moment continue to attack peaceful protesters.

Much to the Obama administration’s private displeasure, al-Hadi is simply not in a position to lead Yemen’s transition or make any decisions in the youth’s name. Yet U.S. officials continue to hype the GCC's proposal as a "clear path forward."

At least some parts of the U.S. media are willing to expose this dilemma: “As for Saleh's deputy, Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi is a characteristically weak figure, with no units of the military loyal to him personally. In a statement he provided to the ruling party committee, the vice president, in a shaky voice, simply said that Saleh's return was imminent, refusing to accept the responsibilities of acting president. Hadi's obvious ambivalence to assume power was something glaringly obvious to Yemen's pro-democracy protesters.”

Few U.S. outlets follow Time’s lead though. Rather than provide oversight, a disconnected media has further enabled Washington’s muddled policy to hit rock bottom. News corporations are consumed by AQAP and Yemen’s tribal fault-lines, or else continue to back the White House’s strategy in relation to Saudi Arabia, now considered the “smart play.” Few Yemenis want anything to do with the GCC or Saudi hegemony, yet the U.S. media has foregone independent reporting by copying Washington’s script.

“The best available policy nevertheless appears to be that being pursued by the Obama administration, which is pressing for acceptance of the deal brokered earlier this spring by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council,” writes The Washington Post after discounting the youth as “attractive” but disorganized.”

So too does Charles Schmitz put down Yemeni protesters as “disorganized,” a fashionable way to marginalize them in Washington. Almost universally, the mass driver behind Yemen’s revolution receives no more than a few paragraphs in any Western report. Schmitz argues in Foreign Policy, “The street demonstrators who have rocked Yemeni politics since February should not be confused with the formal opposition. They are not well organized, and their demands are vague calls for equality, ridding the country of corruption, and bringing economic growth.”

Yemen’s pre-revolutionary power axis does warrant consideration of all political actors. However the protesters themselves should not be drowned out so carelessly.

The Post stated its conclusion directly after admitting, “U.S. and Saudi interests in the Middle East are diverging as the kingdom seeks to prevent the spread of Arab democracy.” In supporting the GCC’s proposal, the Obama administration has similarly prevented Yemen’s democracy from growing. The West pushes the GCC because it overly simplifies an extremely complex process. Its terms will create new disorder by first stalling the revolution, then installing a shadow GPC government. Instead of moving to a transition council, weeks could pass in a power vacuum if Washington and Riyadh refuse to back down.

Like most major U.S. news sites, The Washington Post supported the GCC two weeks ago after Ambassador Gerald Feierstein was trapped in the UAE Embassy. Saleh then detonated Yemen’s crisis by manufacturing civil war against this own tribe. Schmitz and most Yemeni analysts toe the Washington line as U.S. policy remains in free-fall, ignoring the widespread disorganization on the GPC, Saudi and Western front.

Thus the U.S. government and media continue to work in tandem in suppressing Yemen’s revolution.

Manipulated in its present form, the Obama administration's support for the GCC’s proposal appears more concerned with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) than Yemen’s democracy. Beyond obstructing a transitional council currently under development in the streets, the GCC is designed to restart counter-terrorism support to the Yemeni government - specifically Ahmad's Republican Guard - which the Pentagon claims to have held in “abeyance” several days ago. Toner said the White House is “encouraged” by al-Hadi even though he refuses to accept power or negotiate with the JMP.

Asked, “So the cooperation could be extended to dealing with the acting president,” he explicitly replies, “Yes.”

Clearly al-Hadi serves the dual purpose of figure-heading a “unity” government and reconnecting Washington's counter-terrorism pipeline, if it ever went offline to begin with. The New York Times just reported that, in absence of political progress, the Pentagon decided to move ahead with unilateral strikes: “On Friday, American jets killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, a midlevel Qaeda operative, and several other militant suspects in a strike in southern Yemen. According to witnesses, four civilians were also killed in the airstrike.”

Because Washington remains confounded by Yemen’s revolution, it instinctively supports al-Hadi and the JMP as an alternative to the streets. As these short-sighted designs failed to produce results, the Obama administration decided to magnify its nearsightedness with unilateral military operations. A disastrous headline in itself, Yemenis have no doubt that Americas puts its own interests ahead of them.

U.S. policy is misreading Yemen’s revolution completely backwards: stall a political transition then overcompensate militarily. Theoretically the higher standard, governments remain in disorder while “disorderly” protesters organize themselves at a faster pace. The GPC, U.S., and Saudi positions writhe in disarray but nevertheless oppose Yemen’s revolution, yet are branded as the “order” Yemen needs. Meanwhile the streets, having mobilized millions of non-violent protesters and formulated as coherent a plan as the GCC, are discredited as “vague.”

U.S. policy is standing still as Yemenis march forward. So stands America in Yemen - upside-down, with its head in the sand.


  1. Schmitz of Foreign Policy is listening to those who would sabotage the revolution. He has no sense of the reality on the ground.
    We peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators have succeeded in putting the whole system on rocky ground, all the while shunning our weapons. We are organized. Anyone who has spent time at Change Square knows this. We have issued numerous statements with clearly defined steps to tackle the "vague" issues of equality, corruption, and economic growth. And aren't these the same issues that the Egyptian protesters were so clear about?
    The US and Saudi Arabia are perpetuating a double standard, the former using the excuse of AQAP and the latter to avoid democracy developing on their doorstep.
    The Obama administration has given John Brennan full control of the reins but he is only concerned about his Saudi friends at the expense of 25 million Yemenis and stability in the region.
    We are very grateful to James Gundun for his fair and accurate analyses that represent the good and honest values that we believe to be genuinely American.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. The West and Saudi Arabia will inevitably realize the success of your revolution whether they like it or not. It is obvious that neither Yemenis nor any other revolutionaries are going to give up their struggle for freedom.