Robert Gates added an interesting twist to the White House’s deliberation over Libya during his weekend speech at West Point. With Muammar Gaddafi striking back against a semi-conventional insurgency through his air-force, special forces, and mercenaries, U.S. military units close upon the country as pressure builds for international intervention. Except the Pentagon chief has sounded the alarm against sending, “a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa.”
"We are not removing options off the table at this point," White House spokesman Jay Carney responded on Monday.
The ensuing comparisons towards Libya tend to ignore the present history unfolding in the Muslim world. Perhaps nation-building from the outside is an impossible concept, but Gates doesn’t elaborate on his thinking. The obvious takeaway is that America can’t wage repeated counterinsurgencies as in Iraq and Afghanistan; COIN is time and resource intensive by nature, explicitly designed to bleed the stronger side dry. The problem is that Libya’s opposition (and Muslims in general) expect some form of international assistance, political or military, after decades of Western repression.
So now President Barack Obama has one more factor to consider as he deliberates the level of force against Gaddafi’s destructive behavior. While an invasion of Libya appears unrealistic compared to a broader array of Air Force, Navy, and Special Forces operations, the complexities of war rapidly multiply beyond human control. Expecting an “easy” fight is the quickest road to defeat, and Gaddafi’s unconventional forces could tie down an invading force for years. Nor does his death assure the end of war. Nation-building may be required.
But judging by the single-minded message out of Washington, the White House and Pentagon will gladly line up Libya as their next target. Anything to block the view of Yemen’s revolution.
As uprisings stir one by one across the Muslim world, it’s become common for Washington and foreign dictators to hide behind each other. Former president Hosni Mubarak crumbled partially because Egypt’s revolution came to dominate the international sphere, while states like Algeria, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen took refuge behind its shadow.
A geopolitical game of hide and seek.
One might have expected Washington to address Yemen’s growing unrest on Monday, considering Obama’s constant talk of “consistency” and “core values,” but Gaddafi wiped out any trace. For now President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a vital U.S. ally in its war against al-Qaeda, enjoys a comfy refuge behind the maniacal "Colonel." The White House issued a lengthy briefing from UN ambassador Susan Rice that never mentioned Yemen's crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to the UN Human Rights Council, centered her remarks around Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya - and upholding human rights and democracy - as if these were the only countries experiencing revolution. The State Department’s briefing jumped from Egypt, Iran, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan - but never stopped by Yemen.
In a world where most everything is coordinated, Saleh’s exclusion yields no possibility of an accident. One crackdown covers up another.
Few lessons have been gleaned from Egypt judging by the U.S. response to Yemen’s uprising. With Obama keeping quiet the entire month, Washington stubbornly fails to realize that a cone of silence accelerates the very instability it fears. With AQAP on the offensive in Yemen’s east and Saleh consumed by his political survival, many believe his government has become distracted against the group. Washington’s concern is manifested in its silence, however this inaction creates no advantage for U.S. policy. The larger the protests, the more Saleh is consumed with staying alive. AQAP recedes as a priority.
And were he to clamp down on AQAP to curry new favor in the West, he’s liable to squash the Southern Movement in the process, exacerbating Yemen’s domestic crisis.
But what seems unfortunate may not be for Yemeni protesters. Though instability looms on their near-term horizon, Washington’s support for Saleh and corresponding silence merely enables its nightmare of a Saleh-less Yemen. As Saleh grows bolder from America’s public inaction, he increasingly jeopardizes his regime through violence and stall tactics. This has sped up the revolution and hardened the opposition’s demands, bringing the country closer to real regime change.
The only “unity” Saleh knows is how to unite the country against him.
Ultimately, true cooperation with Yemen’s tribes stand a better chance of countering AQAP than Saleh’s bribery. Washington simply needs to pull the plug on Saleh and he wouldn’t last long. That leaves America to jump on the right side early or go down with the ship and its delusional captain. Why does Obama even want to be near the same boat as these dictators?
Sooner or later Yemen will take center stage; Saleh offers the next high-profile, U.S.-supported dictator. As regimes fall one by one, others will lose their cover to hide behind. The shadows of tyranny will recede as the Sun's rays cleanse the region. Either Libya’s opposition topples Gaddafi and Yemen takes the revolutionary lead, or Saleh’s own actions reach a point where they cannot be systematically ignored by the U.S. government. Maybe Tuesday is the day to call him out.
Although that’s what we thought of today.