Not that it’s impossible, but truth’s inherent nature can overturn the most complex lie. High information flow makes false stories harder to keep straight. As U.S. policy in Yemen sinks on President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ego, the Obama administration’s sluggish response has wilted under local and international criticism. A New York Times report then expressed a belated policy shift - designed to rescue the White House from ignominy - and unintentionally exposed how long the administration stood its ground with Saleh.
Now Obama officials want us to know they never trusted him, they simply hoped to buy him off for as long as possible. Because that is so much better!
According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government “was on the verge of launching a record assistance package to Yemen” when the revolution broke out against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.” This information isn’t new. Rumors of a $1.6 billion package over five years emerged in mid-2010, and the WSJ claims the first installment of $1 billion was set to be distributed last February. Beyond an annual $200 million in counter-terrorism support, the package was expected to include roughly equivalent for development assistance that, “Mr. Saleh had long sought to help show a skeptical Yemeni public the benefits of cooperating with the Americans.”
This assistance, however, is more sinister than benevolent.
Two major red flags pop up in the WSJ report. First, officials within the Obama administration are trying to rewrite negative perceptions of U.S. policy in Yemen. Although the White House’s actions and numerous reports indicate a desperate struggle to avoid Saleh’s downfall, Dexter Filkins’s New Yorker piece being a prime example, U.S. officials are telling key outlets such as the NYT and WSJ that they never trusted Saleh to begin with.
“For years,” writes the WSJ, “the conventional wisdom was that only Mr. Saleh prevented Yemen from becoming an al Qaeda sanctuary similar to Afghanistan before 9/11—a safe place for Osama bin Laden's acolytes to train and plot attacks against the West. But Obama administration officials believe Mr. Saleh was never as reliable an ally as the U.S. had hoped, and now—crippled by mass protests and military defections—he is even less use in the fight against al Qaeda.”
If so much doubt existed in the "conventional wisdom," why give him a record package?
Apparently Saleh’s funds would help, “shore up his shaky political position and reward the risks he took by bucking popular opinion and letting U.S. Special Forces hunt down militants inside his country.” Again citing Washington’s concerns over Saleh, the White House became “encouraged” after a financially-strapped Saleh opened his door wider in late 2009 - until a series of U.S. air-strikes killed four times as many civilians as militants. The consequences spilled into Yemen’s public sphere after Saleh stopped taking credit, and a new plan was developed to win him over again.
“U.S. officials hoped the package would nudge Mr. Saleh into a more active counter-terror relationship.”
Thus nudging him into better governance was never the top priority. Corruption has reduced humanitarian aid to a trickle; Saleh concerns himself with appearing to help Yemenis more than actually helping them. In a 2009 cable obtained by WikiLeaks, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy interior minister, told U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke that Saudi assistance to Yemen was rarely “in the form of cash... Cash tended to end up in Swiss banks.”
On top of cash, the Obama administration provided military assistance that Washington knows has been mis-allocated against the northern Houthi tribe and oppositional Southern Movement. Although U.S. diplomatic cables show that Saleh, “provided counter-terrorism cooperation that was uneven at best, and duplicitous and counter-productive at worst,” the White House resorted to a continuation of this failed strategy. The WSJ once more repeats, “U.S. officials believe Mr. Saleh didn't consider al Qaeda a top priority,” that he was “focused mainly on playing tribes against each other.”
The White House and Pentagon then decided to refill Saleh’s bribery fund, believing it would sustain his power and green-light Special Ops.
Filkins even quotes an adviser in early 2011, describing how Saleh had already begun boosting, “It’s money season.” But Yemen’s revolution consumed the impoverished tribes before he could deliver again. Social pressure against Saleh’s bribes has reached the point where many tribal leaders now reject his ongoing offers to send them home.
Filkins’s article paints an unbroken impression that Washington, while dissatisfied with Saleh’s results, nevertheless continued to trust him and hope for the best. Flattering NYT reports claim the White House lost trust in Saleh’s reforms only last month. One cable described Saleh as “bored and impatient,” while his behavior ranged from “disdainful and dismissive” to “conciliatory and congenial.” U.S. officials knew what they were working with and, in comparison to al-Qaeda, considered him the lesser of two evils. This false dilemma ignored Saleh’s own violent streak and Yemen’s populace, ultimately contributing to the revolution.
The Obama administration understood Yemenis’ discontent but never perceived the oncoming revolution. According to a newly released cable from 2009, one tribal leader laid out plans to a U.S. embassy official to trigger a revolt if Saleh did not guarantee fair parliamentary elections in 2011. The vow of Hamid al-Ahmar, a wealthy sheik who catapulted Yemen's tribes into the revolution, was reportedly diagnosed as a "mild irritation" to Saleh.
The White House’s frantic policy has mirrored its response to Egypt in startling ways. One senior Administration official stated, “Our goal is to help prevent a coup or a usurpation of power by Muslim Brotherhood types or by Al Qaeda.” As in Egypt, many Yemenis already believe the president has usurped power from the people. The Pentagon is also holding out hope for a military transition, and continues to search the old regime for candidates to replace Saleh’s son and nephews, who head the U.S. counter-terrorism program.
"What we call the forces of evil are still there," warns Ahmed Maher, the 30-year-old co-founder of Egypt's April 6th Youth Movement.Most striking, the White House’s contingency called for Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to assume power as stipulated “under the constitution.” Although the JMP has submitted this plan under its own name, one U.S. official called Hadi the “preferred scenario” in Washington. Fearing all sorts of Islamist candidates, the official said, “We want to make sure that this is not an abdication.” But Saleh qualifies for both definitions of the word: resignation of the throne and failure of responsibility.
If Yemen’s opposition accepts Saleh’s associate then so be it. However Hadi looks just like the failed transfer of power to Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s torturous intelligence director. And like their Egyptian brethren, Yemenis aren’t concerned with a constitution they intend to rewrite.
Taken in sum, the Obama administration’s “package” aimed to help Saleh delay or permanently suppress the revolution against him. Past, present, and future U.S. policy violates the counterinsurgency maxim of winning the people’s support; already capitalizing on Washington’s porous COIN, AQAP stood an equal chance of growing under a billion dollar slush fund. In attempting to help rewrite the Obama administration's sloppy handling of Yemen, the WSJ has produced a contradictory mess of foreign policy.
No harm done. It got the story right in the end.