April 14, 2011

All Threats, No Explanation in Yemen

Of the many jarring contrasts afflicting U.S. policy in Yemen - defending a dictator while preaching human rights, supporting the opposition while considering unilateral air-strikes over its head - one dichotomy rises to the top. As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) assumes the title of deadliest AQ branch, Yemen’s political instability continues to receive minimal attention relative to Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Iran. Far from coincidental, U.S. officials are keen to trigger Yemen’s terror alarm without delving into the failure of U.S. policy.

But wanting it all is about to leave Washington with nothing.

As Yemen’s revolution began to kick into gear in early March, Garry Reid went so far as to wish Saleh good luck. The Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for special operations and combating terrorism told the Bipartisan Policy Center, “In my view, it’s the best partner we’ll have, and hopefully it will survive.” Reid’s remarks were followed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who cried terror three weeks ago while refusing to discuss Yemen’s internal situation - despite the two being interconnected. Gates’s brief remarks were roundly criticized by the opposition for coinciding with Saleh’s threat of AQAP's "time-bomb." State spokesman Mark Toner then told reporters in early April, “clearly, the counterterrorism efforts in Yemen are foremost on our minds and our assistance and our counterterrorism cooperation continues.”

In remarks prepared for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Mark F. Giuliano became the latest official to address AQAP in a military box, without due consideration to the surrounding politico-economic equation. The FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism warned his audience, “While core AQ remains a serious threat, I believe the most serious threat to the homeland today emanates from members of AQAP.”

Meanwhile the White House and State Department remained silent on Yemen's front for the fourth straight day, despite ongoing clashes between regime loyalists and pro-democracy protesters.

If a public excuse were to be issued, one can imagine the Obama administration justifying its position as “staying out of the way.” The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is deep in negotiations between Saleh’s government and the opposition coalition, and the White House might be afraid to step on any toes. While the political opposition has tentatively accepted the GCC’s initiative, the popular opposition remains opposed to Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi and amnesty for Saleh’s family. The White House has repeatedly welcomed Saleh's "peaceful" attempt to transfer power, ignoring
his hope that the revolution will eventually fade, only to remain silent each time he stalls.

Washington ultimately ends up on Saleh's side; no level of private diplomacy can compensate for a public message during fourth-generation warfare. Single-minded counterterrorism officials also make poor political instruments during multifaceted counterinsurgency. U.S. policy remains mired in ambiguity, feeding impressions that Washington supports Saleh’s version of a transition over the opposition’s. However Giuliano doesn’t completely ignore Yemen’s political condition.

He appears to unwittingly reference the very cause of America’s strategic dilemma.

Listing "drastic changes" in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, he explains, “these changes have impacted our approach to combating terrorism with our overseas partners. Many of these governments were long-term dictatorial regimes with established counterterrorism track records. They are now led by transitional or interim governments, military regimes, or democratic alliances with no established record on counterterrorism efforts. Al-Qa’ida thrives in such conditions and countries of weak governance and political instability—countries in which governments may be sympathetic to their campaign of violence.”

Despite its optimistic rhetoric, the White House is still having a hard time letting go of these regimes. Intentionally or not, Giuliano comes off oblivious to the fact that AQAP thrived under Saleh’s “track record,” which numerous WikiLeaks have now called into question. And he seems unconcerned that Washington prefers dictators as "our overseas partners."

Toner doesn’t mention Yemen during Thursday’s briefing, yet he can’t shake its ghost either. After being questioned about reports that Iran is aiding Syria’s crackdown, Toner responds in the affirmative before the followup: “it seems as if they’re trying to play it both ways, like in Egypt and Bahrain, they’re praising the protesters and, in some cases, even supporting them. But in Syria, they’re trying to stop them.”

“Indeed,” Toner replies. “I mean, it’s somewhat hypocritical. And, I mean, I’d refer you to the Iranian authorities to explain their position. But we believe that they are – they have, obviously, problems with their own human rights record. They continue to play a meddling role in the region, and we encourage them to play a more constructive role and to stay out of the sovereign affairs of other countries.”

The same hypocrisy applies to Washington’s response in Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen. Political meddling has occurred in all three, while observers suspect the White House of looking the other way as the Saudis deployed to Bahrain, part of an alleged quid pro quo for Libya’s intervention. In the latter two states, the U.S. equipment has provided material support to quell opposition protests, namely riot gear and cases of tear gas. Trained by U.S. forces and considered the last force loyal to Saleh, Yemen’s Republican Guard also manifests Washington’s overbearing hand.

The White House and Pentagon show no signs of abandoning their dual track of silence and threats in Yemen. Because a low amount of information is continually fed to the U.S. public, fear has remained an effective tool in suppressing domestic calls for regime change. A large segment of the U.S. people and policy-makers continue to view Saleh as “the best option," despite the fact that he failed to combat AQAP or stabilize Yemen.

Not much has shifted in Washington, contrary to media speculation. Toner makes this clear when addressing negotiations in Bahrain, an exchange that Yemen can be swapped directly into:
QUESTION: Does the Administration have as much confidence as it did a few weeks ago that this dialogue that Bahrain is promising with the opposition is still a legitimate thing? I mean, it appears that they’re doing one thing after another that conflicts with what the U.S. thinks the government ought to stand for. Is there still that level of confidence?

MR. TONER: Well, what – we’re obviously concerned by some of the recent actions, but we continue to believe that the government is willing to take those kinds of steps that you just talked about, and that we believe there’s a peaceful way forward here through dialogue. Obviously, Assistant Secretary Feltman is heading there in part because we believe that we can bridge this gap and we can find a peaceful way forward.

QUESTION: Can I ask you what makes you so confident? You said you were confident that they are willing to engage in dialogue when they’re shutting down opposition parties and intimidating protesters throughout the country. What makes you so confident? I don’t understand that at all.

MR. TONER: Well, again, we continue to have conversations with the Bahraini authorities and across the political spectrum in Bahrain. Certainly, as I said, we’ve been candid in voicing our concerns about some of these recent actions. But we believe that there is a peaceful way forward, and we believe that that can be achieved.

QUESTION: That’s fine. But I was curious why you said you were confident that they’re actually willing to engage in that when they’ve shown absolutely no willingness to do so to date and, in fact, have taken steps that would appear to be contrary to dialogue.

MR. TONER: I – and I think I have stated that we are concerned by these actions. And again, Assistant Secretary Feltman is going to Bahrain expressly to talk to parties on all sides here and try to get the process moving forward. But we believe that there remains a peaceful solution to the situation in Bahrain.

QUESTION: Has anybody from the government told you that they’re willing to solve this through dialogue?

MR. TONER: Well, I’m not going to talk about --

QUESTION: I mean --

MR. TONER: I’m not going to talk about what our private discussions are.

QUESTION: But you said you have confidence, so I’m trying to determine --

MR. TONER: I said we remain --

QUESTION: -- where the genesis of your confidence is.

MR. TONER: No. I understand the question, Kirit. And what I would say is that we continue to be in contact with both the Bahrainian Government as well as the opposition groups there, and we believe that there is a peaceful way forward in this. But I’m not going to talk about the substance of those.”
Unless there’s a terror alarm to sound.

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