Weekly overview of U.S. policy in Yemen:
In accordance with the demands of America’s presidential office, Barack Obama has been flooded with a river of updates throughout his Hawaiian vacation. From economic hardball with the GOP to terror attacks in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, his administration encountered one interruption after another - including a visa request from one of the Arab world’s besieged dictators.
Christmas weekend in Yemen produced a chaotic microcosm of Washington’s response to 11 months of revolution. First the White House allowed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s theoretical December 23rd deadline to expire without clarification, leaving executive power firmly in his hands (instead of Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi). Over two months had passed since the UN Security Council approved a power-sharing initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), stipulating that Saleh transfer executive power to his vice president within 30 days. He would eventually sign in Riyadh on November 23rd, but Friday ended without significance.
After shaking up his cabinet through the GCC’s “mechanism,” Saleh continues to rule above his faithful Hadi and dream of reclaiming absolute authority. State media hails him as “President.” With the GCC’s immunity clause in his back pocket, Saleh remains free to assail protesters without consequence from the international community.
Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) sent Obama an emergency missive warning, “This craving for the bloodletting of innocent peaceful protesters comes even as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered ‘transition deal,’ backed by Your Excellency's Administration's strong support and guarantees, is presumably being carried out by the signing parties to the accord. You should be aware that the peaceful protesting youth and their fellow Yemeni supporters, who continuously still come out by the millions, were not party to such an unprecedented feat of political engineering drawn up mainly by despotic tyrants.”
For now Saleh’s expressed desire to visit New York represents his pledge to transfer power. Speaking as though his visa was already processed, Yemen’s president of 33 years denied that he would receive medical treatment for wounds suffered in a June assassination attempt. He simply planned some R&R before returning to lead his party through February’s presidential election, another of the GCC’s terms. This development was only briefly covered by U.S. media during its embryonic stage, but multiple reports confirmed the administration’s initial reaction: “A U.S. State Department spokesman had no immediate comment on Saleh’s plans. White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment.”
Saleh’s latest maneuver finally exploded into international view once the Obama administration leaked its position on Monday night, only to retract and create an even larger scene on Tuesday.
Unable to fully explain America’s support for Saleh beyond “the War on Terror,” the White House has continually operated behind Yemen’s political and media curve. Last weekend unfolded no differently, starting with the silence that normally accompanies Yemen’s revolution. Next comes the information that Washington is “considering” Saleh’s request, followed by an alleged approval and the necessary spin: he can visit for medical treatment only. Administration officials told The New York Times that removing him from Yemen’s power struggle was “worth managing the criticism that we’d get.” One official argued that pro-democracy protesters might accept the arrangement because it would "send a signal that he's not next door [in Saudi Arabia].”
This explanation was greeted with immediate ridicule from Yemen’s growing network of online activists, and no more than an hour passed before the White House patched its own leak. However a high amount of damage has already been inflicted by “considering” Saleh’s request.
The dispersal of Yemen’s fog reveals a crystal image of cooperation between Washington and Saleh’s regime. Despite assurances that it won’t entertain his political games, the White House is playing directly into Saleh's hands by fraternizing with his officials. The administration even conceded the fact that Saleh still manages Yemen's government and military; the "condition" of leaving behind his "entourage" will ensure that. While the State Department’s Mark Toner refused to discuss Saleh’s visa in detail, he did add that the White House wishes to see the GCC initiative “continue regardless of where President Saleh is.”
“President Saleh” publicly agreed by lauding the GCC’s mediation during Saturday’s press conference. He also defended his “pluralistic regime” and praised his General People’s Congress (GPC) for sharing power with the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). A loose bloc of political and tribal networks, the JMP' is viewed as unrepresentative of Yemen’s revolutionaries.
Abdu al-Janadi, Saleh’s deputy information minister, now claims that his boss will skip his vacation due to the JMP’s “bad intentions,” and instead focus on grooming Hadi for Yemen’s upcoming election. Seemingly unable to secure an unconditional visa (Yemeni officials allegedly received confirmation), Saleh has already shifted to his popular front by declaring, “I won’t leave my people and my comrades.” An elaborate hoax remains a possibility given his duplicitous history and the attention surrounding his proposed vacation. Saleh could be engaging in political reconnaissance-in-force: measuring the White House’s level of support by provoking a reaction. He’s watched the administration approve his visa, monitored the spin of his entry and estimated his chances of returning to Yemen.
Believing that Washington will ultimately cooperate in his favor, Saleh feels secure enough to stay in Yemen and act with impunity. Thus the Obama administration remains opposed to Yemen’s democratic movement whether it grants him entry or not.
This ongoing political drama builds on a secondary diplomatic crisis that attracted minimal coverage from U.S. media. Following the GCC’s signing ceremony, Saleh promptly ordered his security units to besiege the city of Taiz and crush its revolutionary movement. The lack of international response motivated a group of protesters and activists to start their “Life March,” a 170 mile trek from Taiz to the capital of Sana’a. Galvanizing protesters by rejecting the GCC’s initiative and remembering the fallen, Yemen's Life March entered Sana’a on Saturday only to be met with lethal force.
At this point Saleh had already capitalized on the JMP’s donations to marchers, branding the Life March as an “act of anarchy and sedition, incitement and attempt to storm the capital.” On Saturday he accused marchers of "committing acts of riot as they set off from Taiz and until they reached Sana’a,” slandering the march as “a violation of the initiative and its mechanisms, an obvious violation.” U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein then appeared to echo Saleh’s statements and soon found himself on the end of a grassroots campaign to remove him.
The pro-government Yemeni Observer quoted him as saying, “It seems to have the intention not to carry out a peaceful march, but to get access to Sana'a in order to generate chaos and provoke a violent response by the security forces.”
Part of Feierstein’s comments can be attributed to the specific act of marching on Saleh’s heavily-guarded palace, and he added that “the United States supports peaceful demonstrations.” However the ambassador's rhetoric matched up too closely with Saleh's for protesters to stomach. Freedom of movement, provocation of disproportionate force and international awareness also represent the pillars of civil disobedience, and Feierstein enjoys no margin for error after cooperating with the regime. CCYRC advised Obama, “the Yemeni people have only seen your Ambassador as taking on the position of advocate and defender of Saleh's ruthless oppression of his people, almost from the start of his assignment.”
In a vain attempt to rescue Feierstein from his self-inflicted wounds, the administration again demonstrated its insensitivity by deploying John Brennan as backup. The White House’s counter-terror chief has played an active diplomatic role throughout Yemen’s revolution, defending Saleh’s counter-terrorism support and earning himself a more unpopular reputation than Feierstein. Most of Yemen’s protesters and political opposition attribute al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) growth to Saleh’s misrule, and accuse him of exploiting terrorism to leverage the international community.
Although Brennan would phone Hadi to “emphasize... the need for Yemeni security forces to show maximum restraint when dealing with demonstrations,” tasking him was like ordering an air-strike to put out a fire.
If foreign powers do expect to salvage the GCC initiative, they must remove the deal’s immunity clause and reschedule an election cycle on fair terms. Yemen's youth movement, civil activists, Houthi sect and Southern Movement must be regularly engaged in order to minimize a political vacuum, otherwise Saleh's countless opponents will reject the GCC initiative in full. A showdown over February’s election and prolonged instability should follow. A qualitative difference exists between maintaining diplomatic protocol and coordinating with an authoritarian government, and the Obama administration must exercise maximum restraint when communicating with Saleh’s officials.
Dissolving his regime into history is a prerequisite to ridding al-Qaeda from Yemen and opening a new democratic era.