November 2, 2011

Beware of Double-Sided Yemeni Analysis

Since we criticized Christopher Boucek’s outlook on Yemen’s revolution just four days ago, it seems appropriate to comment on his untimely passing at 38. The emerging eulogy within Washington’s Yemeni-analyst ring has rightfully mourned Christopher Boucek as a man, while simultaneously praising his deep knowledge and “love” of Yemen. Boucek knew his way around Yemen’s topography and history, and to his credit made its broken economy a focus of his studies.

Evidence that he understood the whole of Yemen’s revolution is scarcer.

Boucek’s death automatically triggered the same group think that surrounded the last 10 months of his analysis. Most established U.S. analysts on Yemen have reacted by wondering why Washington didn’t listen to his wise advice (which we’ve collected), when key parts of his reports were put to use. The military-economic divide in U.S. aid remains intact, but Boucek tacitly sided with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal since it was introduced in April. His entire argument is based around the tragic reality that Ali Abdullah Saleh will “drag on,” but eventually agree to a political settlement. Boucek’s media statements and Carnegie reports vary between echoing the U.S. line and directly mimicking U.S./EU diplomats advocating a negotiated settlement.

“Perhaps the most basic error of the international community is to describe what is happening in Yemen as a political crisis and not a revolution,” Takawel Karman, Yemen’s leading female activist and Nobel laureate, wrote in The Guardian. “The Yemenis insist it is – not by words only, but with their blood, which the regime continues to shed.”

Boucek placed himself in the box of “political crisis.” Instead of condemning Saleh’s murderous actions or the West’s duplicitous diplomacy, he made excuses for why Saleh won’t sign or why Washington still needs him. Boucek manipulates a valid concern - “the Americans probably don’t have as much influence as they would like” - into a means of control. By minimizing the level of influence Washington holds over Saleh, Boucek undersold the pressure that the Obama administration could exert if it truly sided with Yemen’s protesters. This makes sense in his mind because the revolutionaries were nearly irrelevant.

“Then there are protesters we see out on the streets, oftentimes referred to as youth protesters,” he told PBS’s NewsHour in April. “However, I think the youth protesters are probably a small subset of the overall protesters that we see in the streets... And in whatever settlement it is that brings this drama to a conclusion, most likely, it will be the youth, that segment of the protesters that will lose out.”

A realistic possibility, to be sure, but Boucek consistently spoke as though he’s unconcerned with this outcome. Yemen’s revolutionaries are also more representative that he credits them for, and Boucek was willing to ring al-Qaeda’s alarm without providing context to Saleh’s plot in southern Yemen.

"The operating space for al-Qaeda is getting bigger and bigger," journalist Jim Lobe quoted him as saying in June. "As the state's authority recedes, the space for al-Qaeda to plot, plan, and mount operations is getting larger."

Warnings of AQAP exceeded his warnings of U.S. policy, a primary source of AQAP’s growth: "They have the capacity to mount attacks against American interests. They've said they'll do it again and the bigger the space that (the group) has to plan and mount operations against international targets, the more dangerous they become. A failed state right next to the world's biggest oil producer is bad."

Boucek also believed that Saleh’s rule was “likely over” after his assassination attempt in June, when this outcome was completely up in the air. Many Yemenis and observers (including ourselves) expected an eventual return and weren’t shocked when he landed in Sanaa’s bloodbath.

Unfortunately for Yemenis, Boucek’s economic warnings shielded an approval of U.S. military support to Saleh’s regime. Military operations were further concealed by false objections to drone strikes and calls for a “balanced approach.” Washington has followed his latest advice, forcing a negotiated settlement on Yemen’s revolutionaries by manipulating a disjointed, power hungry opposition. He may have been a generous man and sincere student of Yemen’s history, but Boucek’s own words highlight his stance towards its revolution:
“Success breeds success. The killing of Awlaki helps Washington encourage Yemen to go after the other wanted terrorists. The American administration’s thinking on Yemen is much more mature than many people give it credit for, with Washington looking to find ways to make this situation work to America’s advantage...

The Yemeni government argues that a transition process needs to be lawful and legitimate - otherwise they say it would be a coup. No matter what you think about the Yemeni government, President Saleh is the legitimately elected leader. Simply throwing him out right now without any sort of plan for what would come next could make matters worse.”
Apparently legitimately elected leaders can murder “their people” without consequence and drive “their state” into the ground. Boucek’s rhetoric remained twisted to the end, as dozens of protesters (including children) have been killed in the 12 days since the UN Security Council stamped the GCC’s initiative. Yemen revolutionary opposes a transitional plan, but they want this plan to represent their unconditional interests - not Washington, Riyadh and Saleh’s.

Boucek's last report was paraphrased by the regime-friendly Yemeni Observer: "US expert stresses managed power transition and early election in Yemen."

1 comment:

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