September 28, 2011
What Can Be Done in Yemen? Too Much
For years we’ve watched those who watch Yemen. More than a few U.S. analysts initially stuck to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime when the uprising struck, either out of necessity or choice. The general belief contended that if Saleh wasn’t a true ally, his government offered the most pragmatic option to combating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These analysts also pushed for a transition when many protesters had already buried the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal, having perceived through Saleh’s joint stalling tactics with Washington and Riyadh.
Only a minority of U.S. observers were willing to unconditionally oppose the Obama administration’s policy, without concern for the potential loss of media access.
Perhaps our impressions are wrong, but this summer seemed to bring a noticeable drop in Yemeni coverage from these same analysts. Our assumption is that their predictions didn’t work out so well, leaving them to vicariously experience the White House’s nerves. Every media-approved analyst has since resurfaced with feverish activity, especially in light of Yemen’s recent violence and Saleh’s “surprise” return. Three major pieces dropped yesterday in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Council on Foreign Relations. Each appears comprehensive on the surface, only to bail out of a deeper decent into Yemen’s revolution.
The key to U.S. analysis is diversion. The majority of reports apply a relatively equal focus to AQAP, Saleh and his family, and Yemen’s political opposition, while also mixing light criticism with an excuse of U.S. policy. The core youth movement is granted token recognition before moving on to the traditional power brokers, who certainly manifest enormous influence on Yemen’s environment, but not to the point that the youth should be negated. Treated like children at the adult’s dinner table, U.S. and Saudi officials have encouraged fragmentation between the opposition and youth movement. While Washington accepts suspected al-Qaeda elements in Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), al-Qaeda’s presence is exploited to keep Yemen’s opposition divided - similar to Saleh’s “snake dancing."
Whether inside government meeting rooms or the U.S. media, every piece of Yemen’s puzzle is being discussed above the popular protesters. Charlies Schmitz, an associate professor of geography at Towson University, is versed in this style of writing. Arguing that the “bad guy won” in his latest Foreign Policy piece, “Yemen’s Unhappy Ending,” Schmitz waits until his conclusion to get tough with the Obama administration. Apparently buying Saleh’s plot in Abyan, he then ridicules U.S. officials for believing his “facts on the ground.”
U.S. policy is “comical,” Schmitz says, but that’s all he says.
Gregory Johnsen, billed as the leading mainstream expert on Yemen, released a similar analysis through the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), only he attempts to “reset U.S. policy.” Johnsen’s council sounds wise in a vacuum, but his conclusion is that the U.S. should try what has already failed. In particular, Saleh and his son Ahmed have been warned in private and public to leave the country. Whether they were explicitly threatened with sanctions is undetermined, but Johnsen suggests another attempt of this three-pronged approach, after Saleh just returned from Riyadh and stirred up mayhem. He’s also requested a fatwa from the Yemeni Clerics Association, to be applied to whoever rejects his false dialogue.
That Yemen’s future is being hashed out in private by U.S. and Saudi officials only contributes to their own loss of credibility.
Other “solutions” will also do more harm than good. On top of political subservience to the GCC, which Yemen isn’t an official member of, Johnsen suggests a Special Fund to stabilize the transitional process. While Yemen requires extensive economic assistance, its revolutionaries share Egyptian protesters’ distrust of Western and Gulf funding. Most of the GCC’s funds would flow from Saudi Arabia, sustaining its breach in Yemen’s sovereignty. Johnsen also ignores a genuine public outreach in favor of a “joint center for public awareness,” established by U.S. policymakers and “their Saudi and Yemeni colleagues.”
“The center would seek to deprive AQAP of one of its main assets: unchallenged public assertions. At the moment, no entity in Yemen is speaking up in Arabic against AQAP, which means that the organization is able to shape its public message uncontested. The joint center would work to make al-Qaeda as synonymous with terrorism in Yemen as it is in the United States.”
The U.S. needs to develop relations with Yemen’s people by speaking through policy, not by countering AQAP’s propaganda. U.S. policy is AQAP’s propaganda; too many Yemenis believe the group is funded by Saleh for a U.S. initiative to succeed. It must be homegrown, and grown out of a genuine reset in U.S. policy. Johnsen also praised Schmitz’s article as the “must read” of the day, a warning sign in itself. The majority of U.S. analysts are relatively coordinated in their opinions, creating a group think that has limited public awareness and understanding of Yemen’s situation.
The Atlantic’s John Dana Stuster, an intern at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), authored the trio’s most blunt assessment, digging deeper into the GCC’s grime and spending more text on the youth movement. This isn’t surprising given that he’s the youngest of the three analysts, and Stuster follows Yemen’s plot until he runs into the same wall of “what can America really do?”
The answer is plenty.
Saleh’s plots run too deep for U.S. light to reach. As a basic reset, the Obama administration must officially end its support for the GCC initiative and begin a process of empowerment towards the Yemeni youth. No fair election is possible with Saleh in power or his regime in control of a transitional council. Rather than offer another chance to Saleh - he won’t take it - President Obama himself must unequivocally end America’s political and military relationship with his regime. “Encouraging” Saleh two days before a massacre is obviously the wrong route, as is faking “surprise” upon his return to Sana’a.
Increased high-level involvement should start with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The administration must stop destroying its own credibility through silence, clueless sources and half-baked, low-level statements. A meltdown in U.S. policy has created a negative cycle in which officials fear getting too close, effectively ending their diplomacy. Instead John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief, has assumed the lead with a host of defense officials, reinforcing the perception that America is obsessed with terrorism - to the point that it creates militants. This policy must be reversed.
U.S. officials can easily stop legitimizing the regime through constant meetings, if they actually wished to do so. On Thursday one of Clinton's deputies, Jeffrey Feltman, met with Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi in Washington, after Al-Qirbi used his time in the UN to denounce Yemen’s opposition as the source of violence. Meanwhile Ambassador Gerald Feierstein met with Saleh’s impotent vice president, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and subsequently declared, "We have heard optimistic talks from all sides."
These aren’t sincere attempts to assist the revolutionaries or stay in contact with the government, and are akin to friendly meetings with the Assads or Gaddafis.
Perhaps more challenging of all, the administration should temporary halt U.S. air strikes until Saleh’s regime is removed. These strikes aren’t making much “progress” anyway and serve as the administration’s excuse to delay a real change in policy. More damage will be dealt to AQAP if Washington ends its military operations and manages to pull out of its political death spiral. These suggestions may sound unrealistic, but the other “realistic” options have already failed. The Obama administration's problem isn’t that America can only do so much in Yemen, but that it must do too much - that too much change must occur too fast, and that too much influence will be lost.
A lack of political will, not a viable alternative, is sinking U.S. policy in Yemen.