March 22, 2011

White House Refusing Responsibility in Yemen

If mass defections from the military, ruling party, and his own tribe didn’t opened Ali Abdullah Saleh’s eyes, they should have at least awakened America from its slumber. But as Yemen’s president continues to offer futile promises of a 2012 resignation, vainly hoping to oversee the transition process, U.S. policy also remains unchanged despite systematic violence from an untrustworthy government.

And with White House officials back in silent mode on Tuesday, State spokesman Mark Toner was once again fed to the wolves.

Reading from Washington's outdated script in Yemen, Toner tells reporters, “We want to see a political dialogue, first and foremost, where the opposition or the – is speaking with the government.” He also claims, “it’s not really for us to say what they should or shouldn’t do,” that “it’s not for us to say, ‘Yes, you should take President Saleh at his word,’ or, ‘President Saleh should do more.’ Both are going to have to meet in the middle; that’s how consensus is forged.”

Toner then defends Saleh’s attempt to compromise, insisting, “We believe he has made efforts to do so... We believe they’re – that he’s taking steps, that both sides should work towards meeting in the middle to advance the political process there.” But not before qualifying again, “it’s really up to the Yemeni people to respond to that.” So it’s not America’s place to say what it wants, that Saleh should do more, or that opposition should trust him.

But by the way, Saleh should do more and the opposition should trust him.

Interestingly, Toner does end with a hint of realism: “I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, even though I do – but it’s really not for us to say what the Yemeni people need to do.” Given that U.S. support for Saleh hasn’t left Yemen’s future to its people, the situation demands a change in policy so that it doesn’t sound broken. U.S. officials appear to understand this subconsciously, although it has yet to seep into public view.

One reporter finally asks, “I mean, you started off saying the same exact thing that you’re saying now in Egypt and in Libya, and then you kind of moved to he’s lost authority to lead and has to begin a transition. So where’s the tipping point when you’re going to say that about Yemen?”

“Unable” to answer the question, Toner once more replies, “I just can – all I can say is that we believe that both sides need to come together and create the necessary space and a political dialogue that resolves the situation.”

"We accept no initiative, no deals and no negotiations with this man," one opposition figure, Sultan Atwani, declared on Tuesday. "There are only hours left for him. All these promises are desperate excuses."

Saleh’s growing isolation over last weekend’s violence has further accentuated the status quo preferred by Washington; U.S. policy stands in vivid contrast to the Yemeni opposition and even Western governments that have begun conceding Saleh’s loss. After the White House’s message between Friday and Monday remained unchanged despite a bloodbath, U.S. media is finally covering President Barack Obama’s inaction and lack of moral support.

However Tuesday’s static response has infected U.S. policy with impression of going backwards. After Saleh’s Defense Minister vowed to protect the regime against a coup, Saleh met with remaining military officials before crying “civil war” and threatening to defend his "democracy." Instead he blamed foreign media for misleading the security establishment. Afterward came U.S. urges to negotiate with him - a clear downward spiral.

Yet de-evolution, like the Obama administration's information curtain in Yemen, is no coincidence. A new tactic of distancing itself from Saleh is being deployed. When asked today on Yemen’s revolution and whether Saleh should resign immediately, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replied, "I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen."

As the driving force behind Saleh's military assistance and political cover - both misused on forces other than AQAP - the Pentagon should know better than anyone else that America made Yemen’s internal affairs its own business. Washington owns Saleh whether it accepts responsibility or not, and the U.S. government saw few immediate problems in supporting Saleh before the revolution erupted. Shouldn’t the lack of military progress against AQAP concern Gates, if not the fact that U.S. policy contributed to Yemen’s political turmoil?

To remove oneself now is vintage Cold War shadow games, not the type of thinking that will fool protesting Yemenis or any sincere observer. At this point anything other than a yes to Saleh’s removal is a no. But Gates does add, "We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. And so instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is my primary concern about the situation."

It shows - Yemen’s political and economic instability took a back seat to fighting AQAP. Now, instead of focusing on the social instability that drives AQAP, Gates has voiced concern that the revolution may distract Saleh from AQAP, concerns repeated ad nauseam by subordinate U.S. officials. Better leave him alone then! Apparently America’s place is to suppress the Yemeni people in AQAP's name, not to defend their freedom in an attempt to marginalize AQAP’s ideology and narrative.

Washington has until Friday to change course. Saleh may fall before then, but all bets may be final once the opposition marches on the presidential palace. The Obama administration cannot run from Yemen or distance itself from Saleh. America cannot stay out when it’s already in - in the way.

To argue "it's not for us to say" says a great deal.

If Obama cannot personally support the Yemeni people by Friday, he will be held accountable for whatever political and military gains AQAP secures. The Yemeni people must be free to decide their own future, and the best counter to AQAP’s rise is backing the people before it’s too late. One cannot blame their support for AQAP after U.S. policy pushes them together.

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