By James Gundun
They supposedly came to the podium in peace. Celebrating the start of Islam’s Holy Month during a time of historic upheaval, President Barack Obama sent his ‘best wishes to Muslim communities in the United States and around the world.’ His Secretary of State would add, “During this month of peace and humility, I wish the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world Ramadan Kareem.”
Hillary Clinton couldn’t have meant every Muslim though – only those that serve U.S. interests.
Believing they had affirmed the spirit of Ramadan while defending courageous revolutionaries across the Middle East and northern Africa, the President and his Secretary pledged to “stand with the Syrian people” as government forces rolled into Hama. The “Ramadan Massacre” would leave hundreds of protesters dead by the end of the week, and the administration jumped on the initial siege to “highlight the brutality and viciousness of the Assad regime.” Yet by zeroing on Syria’s revolution, so too has the White House highlighted a biased response to the Arab Spring.
The Wall Street Journal explicitly spelled out U.S. foreign policy during a March editorial: “Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, we have argued that the Obama Administration needs to distinguish between its friends and enemies in the region, urging reforms on the former and encouraging regime change with the latter.”
The “Friendly” Neighborhood Dictator
Although Clinton marked Ramadan as “a time of deep reflection and sacrifice,” neither of these virtues can be found within the whole of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The louder Obama and Clinton shout in Syria, the more “friendly regimes” – notably Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh – become an afterthought. Inactive since the revolution began in January, Obama hasn’t mentioned Yemen since his May 17th “Moment of Opportunity,” an eternity for a country experiencing daily violence and upheaval. Clinton has similarly laid low throughout the revolution, preferring the safety of Libya and Syria’s anti-American regimes. Her last comments date to June 9th, a short defense of U.S. policy and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s “30/60″ initiative.
Whereas the administration labors to isolate Bashar al-Assad, Washington and Riyadh are the only powers propping up Saleh’s regime. Mediated by U.S. and Saudi officials during negotiations with Saleh and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the GCC’s terms would grant Yemen’s besieged president a 30-day reprieve and immunity for his family, while allocating 50% of a transitional council to his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). Elections would be held after another 60 days, too soon for popular parties to organize. Protesters widely oppose the initiative for circumventing their revolution.
“Regrettably, there are some parties in the International Community, led by the United States and the European Union which have sponsored the GCC Initiative and provided their guarantees by this sponsorship, in order to reach a political settlement,” reads the latest international appeal from Yemen’s Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC). “Such guarantees have never been offered to any falling dictatorial regimes in the region.”
All subsequent U.S. statements (what few there are) have been delegated through John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism chief and personal ambassador to Saleh, U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein or various State Department officials. Each has legitimized the regime in some form: rendezvousing with Saleh himself (Brennan), meeting his gaggle of political representatives (Feierstein), or advocating the GCC’s power-sharing initiative and ongoing counter-terrorism operations. Amid an intense public debate that forced the administration to harden its position against al-Assad, few U.S. lawmakers or pundits have questioned a sunken policy in Yemen.
Not that Clinton and Feierstein haven’t been probed on the divergence. Ironically asked in a June interview why Libya and not Syria or Yemen, Clinton never answers except to denounce Syria’s crackdown and turn towards Cote d’Ivoire. Feierstein was also asked of the perceived double-standard between Syria and Yemen during an iftar hosted for local journalists. After replying that al-Assad’s regime has killed more protesters, Feierstein outright denied U.S. favoritism towards Saleh’s family enterprise. The ambassador publicly argues that “cornering” the unpredictable strongman is counterproductive, as if al-Assad was any less reactionary.
Ignoring all the warning signs on Saleh (many now exposed by WikiLeaks), the Obama administration chose to work with a duplicitous tyrant and receives little sympathy from Yemenis.
A simple answer does explain the divergence between Syria and Yemen’s revolutions. In early August White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a warning to al-Assad that Clinton has employed for months: he isn’t “indispensable.” Publishing a June op-ed in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat, titled “There Is No Going Back in Syria,” the Secretary bombards al-Assad’s projected image as a reformer. Her conclusion: “If President Assad believes he can act with impunity because the international community hopes for his cooperation on other issues, he is wrong about this as well. He and his regime are certainly not indispensable.”
During a July briefing with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Clinton repeated, “President Aasad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”
Never has Obama, Clinton or any other U.S. official thoroughly denounced Saleh, who enjoys Washington’s indispensable treatment in the battle against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Saleh acts with impunity precisely because Washington is invested in his regime – because “cooperation” against AQAP opens the door to regional militarization. While U.S. policy has little to lose by ousting al-Assad, the administration would lose the bulk of its influence in Yemen if a representative government came to power. “Counter-terror” training for Saleh’s private guard, “secret” air-strikes and a potential drone base could grind to a halt.
Without Saleh’s systematic provocation of the Yemeni people, AQAP’s threat against the West might even diminish. This has become a negative scenario in Washington due to Yemen’s geostrategic significance in the 21st century.
A Tale of Two Revolutions
Granted, Syria’s ruthless crackdown exceeds Yemen’s death-toll by several thousand, but well over 1,000 Yemenis have been martyred since February and thousands more wounded. Nor does relatively mix with universal rights. Saleh’s Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, two U.S.-trained “counter-terrorism units” led by his son and nephew, have employed the same brutality and terror tactics against peaceful protesters as al-Assad’s security forces. Although China and Russia stand in the way of UN resolutions in Yemen, the Obama administration has devoted limited energy to countering the same BRIC wall found in Syria. While the White House launched its verbal artillery at al-Assad throughout August, no statement was issued on Yemen’s revolution during Ramadan.
Direct military support for Saleh’s regime necessitates support for Yemen’s revolutionaries, but realistically impedes assistance to the uprising’s core.
Speaking after the UN Human Rights Council opened a Commission of Inquiry into al-Assad’s crackdown, Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe cited “a very strong and growing consensus in the international community” that doesn’t exist against Saleh. The administration has stood silent on Yemen’s casualties while in Syria, “we will not stand by silently as innocent civilians and peaceful protesters are slaughtered by security forces.” Donahoe, the UNHRC’s U.S. representative, declared that the Obama administration and European governments, “have not been fooled by empty promises of reform and engagement. Actions speak louder than words: the continuing atrocities have sent a loud and clear message to us all that Assad’s promises cannot be trusted.”
Yet Saleh, who also promises hollow reform and engagement amid a brutal crackdown, can still be trusted to sign the UN-approved GCC initiative after “reneging” three times.
This myth was forged by Saleh’s duplicitous intentions and retold by the White House to conceal a gasping policy; never did he genuinely agree to sign. And by calling for the GCC’s “transition” months ago, Western and Arab media prematurely interpreted the administration’s policy as “post-Saleh.” That the administration hasn’t changed course since April demonstrates an utter lack of diplomatic creativity and morals – Washington can’t bring itself to sacrifice Saleh’s regime for Yemen’s greater good. In contrast to al-Assad, whom the administration “does not want to see remain in Syria for stability’s sake,” Saleh is still viewed as a doorway to regional influence.
The schism between al-Assad and Saleh pervades U.S. foreign policy. While Syrian Ambassador Robert Ford was becoming a hero to the revolutionaries during a July visit to Hama, Feierstein spends most of his time meeting with ruling officials and representatives of the JMP, earning widespread criticism from Yemen’s popular revolutionaries. As the administration attracted controversy for sending Ford back to Syria – a move some U.S. lawmakers perceived as legitimizing the regime – Feierstein has spearheaded the GCC’s unpopular initiative out of sight and mind. Once Saleh left for medical treatment in Riyadh, the ambassador cozied up with Vice President Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi, now due to receive Saleh’s power under the initiative.
“Washington has confidence in the abilities of Vice President Hadi,” Feierstein said earlier this month, adding that the two met 13 times since June 3rd. “Hadi, who was assigned as acting president following the departure of Saleh, has gained Washington’s full confidence, not only to accomplish the transition of power, but also to lead Yemen during the transition phase.”
The reality is that Saleh never delegated power to Hadi, instead handing Yemen’s strings over to his son Ahmed, a Pentagon liaison with presidential ambitions. Saleh’s regime has denied U.S. pressure and inches toward a return to Sana’a, seemingly operating under the belief that neither Washington nor Riyadh will stop him at gunpoint. Only “obeying” while he recuperated from an assassination attempt – typical behavior from the besieged strongman – Saleh continues to suppress Yemen’s revolutionaries through his family of security commanders. The Vice President, who was never “acting” president, serves in his usual bureaucratic role, largely sidelined by Saleh’s inner circle and possessing minimal support to pressure for his resignation. Hadi never represented the revolution and lacks the strength to lead a popular transition away from the old regime.
Undeterred, the administration continues to put Yemen’s future in Saleh’s hands, the most dangerous place it could be.
“All we can do is continue to press our belief that this transition needs to happen immediately and cannot wait until a decision is made about his (Saleh’s) future,” Feierstein said over three weeks ago. “So, what we’re working on, through our embassy and our ambassador, is trying to move the process forward now, rather than wait.”
Shining Washington’s Mirror
Unfortunately waiting is the administration’s only visible policy. “Pressuring” Saleh to remain in Riyadh so that Yemen can “move forward” equates to smoke-and-mirrors, since the GCC’s terms will lead to new instability and the Yemeni people won’t be rewarded for their sacrifices. Some local reports have the GCC’s proposal already signed, but unless an external power stops his return, Saleh is intent on surviving through protracted “dialogue.” Preferring snap elections that can be further manipulated, Saleh will keep the GCC’s initiative in his back pocket until he’s completely out of options. His son now rejects any further dialogue and is actively barricading Sana’a in response to popular calls for non-violent escalation.
As White House and State Department officials scramble to legally encircle Bashar al-Assad, one can imagine the White House’s daily planning session on Yemen (assuming there is one). Any debate over Saleh’s value and counter-terrorism operations inevitably ends with the unpopular GCC; officials in the State Department openly admit that U.S. policy hasn’t changed in months. Thus the administration believes it already possesses a response to Yemen: stall the revolution through the JMP, then back the GCC and transfer power to the ruling party. Pentagon and CIA operations never have to stop rolling above the protesters’ heads.
Problem solved – even if the revolutionaries view Washington’s solution as a problem.
U.S. policy is stuck in Yemen’s sand and must actively free itself from a cornered position. The natural outcome is an urgent need to give Yemenis the same treatment as their Syrian brothers and sisters. All of al-Assad’s punishments – international isolation, UN sanctions, heightened media attention – must be applied to Saleh. Obama and Clinton must stand by Yemen’s revolutionaries instead of Saleh’s regime and the unrepresentative JMP, and come clean on U.S. complicity through a process of due justice.
As Eid ul-Fitr comes to an end, they must reflect on and purify a disastrous policy in Yemen.
– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst. His blog, The Trench – http://hadalzone.blogspot.com – covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @RealistChannel.