On Thursday night Yemenis and Bahrainis were competing for the title of least ignored revolutionaries. By Friday morning all U.S. media, local and national, were compelled to run 24 hour coverage on Yemen, capitulating the state to international awareness. Only America’s media as a whole has failed to adequately understand Yemen’s situation, and a nine-month revolution was smoothly dropped during transmission of Anwar al-Awlaki’s public funeral.
A minority of observers were overpowered by the mainstream’s “shock and awe” capabilities.
Three days after al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) leading personality failed to escape the Predator that spotted him in Khasaf, Yemen, the U.S. media is steamrolling over those trying to place his death in context. A flurry of reports hit the information sphere on Monday, each seemingly planned in advance but trending towards group-think: why al-Awlaki was important, why his assassination was legal, why he isn’t important to Yemen’s tribes and why U.S. military operations need to continue.
Anwar al-Awlaki cannot be written off as a nobody simply because he possessed limited reach inside Yemen. Foreign propaganda is equally vital to insurgents and terrorist groups, often eclipsing the effects of military action, and internal knowledge of America offers valuable insights when planning attacks. Conversely, his importance breaks down as significance is applied to him. al-Awlaki was uninvolved in the semi-organized fighting in Yemen’s southern governorates, where U.S. officials continue to sound the alarm, and Washington is the only entity that considered him to be AQAP’s foreign operations chief. al-Awlaki worked within this cell; more experienced operational planners exist beyond him.
The small community of committed Yemeni observers, despite all their variances and potential flaws, generally agree on al-Awlaki’s operational modesty, but the mainstream media has released a second wave of counter-editorials and reports against these claims. Repeating “why al-Awlaki matters,” counterterrorism experts and political analysts with no working knowledge of Yemen are now refuting all analysis to the contrary. One of the main problems in understanding AQAP stems from the uncertainly surrounding al-Awlaki’s role, a public ignorance of him and the disregard for Yemen’s wider condition. Lack of awareness allows the U.S. media to frame his death however it sees fit, often in a glowing light towards the Obama administration.
One of many narratives to crop up is the notion that al-Awlaki’s killing signifies progress, but it won’t improve President Barack Obama’s economic figures. These thoughts don’t think twice about AQAP or Yemen’s revolutionaries.
The same dilemma applies to Ali Abdullah Saleh, who refuses to give up executive power after 33 years in office. Few reports zero on Washington's unstable and immoral relationship with Saleh, the type of puppet relationship that al-Qaeda survives on. The majority of reports on al-Awlaki include obligatory references in order to maintain plausible deniability, capitalizing on Yemen’s bubble of ignorance to effectively manipulate its narrative around the revolution. The U.S. media remains encouraged that the administration urged Saleh to leave power, having been led and now leading the public to believe that Washington is forcing him out - perhaps too fast.
Calls for Saleh’s resignation are consumed with little resistance. A selection of analysts and reports detail how this rhetorical seesaw favors both Washington and Saleh as they continue to stall Yemen’s revolution, but the dominate narrative is holding: killing al-Awlaki marks a “significant blow” and U.S. policy hasn’t changed. According to President Obama’s single statement at the UN, his administration still wants Saleh’s regime out of power.
“And Yemen’s president?” a Bloomberg editorial wonders. “Saleh, grasping at straws in an effort to stay in power, will no doubt use the operation as an argument for new support from the U.S. He should be ignored. As an ally in the fight against extremism, Yemen has been slightly more reliable than Pakistan, which is faint praise indeed. Any successor government would be just as eager to see al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula shut down, and might be a more efficient partner. Even a civil war wouldn’t much change the status quo - the terrorists in Yemen have long enjoyed a free hand. The last thing the U.S. needs to do is prop up another corrupt dictator.”
Unfortunately America has been doing “the last thing” it “needs to do” since January, with minimal consequence. Saleh has survived in part because he successfully manipulated the U.S. media through al-Qaeda, reducing domestic pressure on the administration. Obama has yet to personally comment on a massacre that left at least 150 people dead in Sana’a and thousands injured, Saleh’s subsequent return to Yemen or his acquisition of an illegitimate religious fatwa against the opposition’s demonstrations. Saleh has issued multiple claims that the opposition is al-Qaeda, all ignored, and Obama has made no comment during the aftermath al-Awlaki’s death, leaving the job for low level officials.
Saleh even “welcomed” the White House’s statements, yet his scheme and ongoing meetings between U.S. and Yemeni officials are translated as “pressuring” Saleh out of office.
Instead the administration has intensified its maneuvers to orchestrate a favorable power transfer, a mission that inevitably subverts Yemen’s revolutionaries. Every week Western diplomat speak of an agreement being close, only for the next week to pass with more bloodshed and no political progress. One anonymous source told Reuters, "We keep thinking we're close to an agreement and then it slips away again. There are very powerful forces at work that don't want an agreement because of their own financial interests, their own skins."
Washington seeks an agreement for these same reasons, going so far as to falsely declare that the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) unpopular initiative is supported by Yemen’s revolutionaries. The State Department would stick to its worn script on Monday, contradicting the disappointment of Yemen’s popular coalitions.
The newest danger to their struggle is the theory of how willingly they’ll “shut down” AQAP. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta deployed this faulty logic on Sunday night, "expecting" that “anyone who takes Saleh's place will continue to be concerned about the terror network there and will cooperate with the U.S. in going after it.” His statements are true for the wrong reasons, starting with neocolonialism. Yemen’s revolutionaries will be the first to combat al-Qaeda’s influence, believing that Saleh himself is a main source of terrorism, but they won’t accept the Pakistani model that Washington is clearly pursuing.
“I think that will continue to be the case regardless of what ultimately happens with president Saleh," Panetta told reporters while en route to Israel.
The Defense Secretary has no concept of a new Yemen, only the old. Now the U.S. media is copying Panetta’s diplomatic advice, repackaging one of the most unpopular U.S. officials in Yemen instead of questioning his statements. Panetta has issued many comments on al-Qaeda and few on Yemen’s revolution, conforming to the administration’s strategy to shift attention around Saleh. Panetta soundly advises Israel that military superiority cannot overcome diplomatic isolation, when this outcome is the source of instability in U.S.-Yemeni relations.
Now he’s boasting of how Washington already lined up Yemen’s next leaders and ordered them to follow the same script.
Far from supporting Yemen’s popular protesters, Panetta is implying working ties with current government officials (particularly Vice President Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi) and oppositional elements, not the revolutionary coalitions seeking a civil state. He, like most of the U.S. media ignores the reality that Yemenis can’t wait to get rid of AQAP, Saleh or U.S. hegemony in their country.