By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.
In early January 2011, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Sana’a to manage the autocratic habits of a useful ally in the war against al-Qaeda.
Having warned other allies (Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria) of a youth bulge prior to the Arab uprisings, the Secretary now found herself just above the surface of a ripe volcano as she mingled with Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. U.S. policy needed his approval to facilitate an expansion of military and counter-terrorism platforms in the country, but that need required less antagonistic leadership atop the government. For Clinton, this meant walking Saleh away from a parliamentary proposal that would eliminate term limits and allow him to run indefinitely, which he eventually agreed to in return for Washington’s political and military assistance.
“We support an inclusive government,” Clinton replied when asked how the Obama administration could support Saleh’s government and human rights at the same time. “We see that Yemen is going through a transition. And you’re right: it could one way or the other. It could go the right way or the wrong way.”
Yemen’s revolution would spark weeks after Clinton shook hands with Saleh and departed the capital, never to return. Despite her professed support for a representative government, the Obama administration first treated Yemen’s uprising as an obstruction to be neutralized, fearing a loss of influence with the next government. During this time al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) capitalized on Saleh’s distraction in the cities to expand its ranks and territorial control in Yemen’s southern governorates; Saleh’s U.S.-trained counter-terrorism forces aided the process by fighting Yemen’s revolutionaries and tribesmen rather than terrorists. However this chain of events ultimately created an opportunity for Washington and its allies, namely Saudi Arabia and European partners, to replace the duplicitous Saleh with his vice president and continue their policies unimpeded.
President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, “elected” through the UN’s single-candidate referendum in February 2012, doubles as a leading proponent of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. This hegemonic policy was displayed again on Thursday when the Obama administration released a two-part press notice from the White House and State Department: “Partnering with the People of Yemen.” Lying to the American people when talking Yemen, unfortunately, is simpler and easier than stealing candy from a baby. The American majority lives in ignorance of Yemen’s troubles and their government’s own interference in the country. Chronic fear of al-Qaeda and a high degree of hostility, reminiscent of American attitudes towards Pakistanis and Iraqis, contribute to this detachment, which in turn allows the Obama administration to interfere in Yemen’s affairs without domestic cost.
Lack of political incentives to support the Yemeni people have endangered them in multiple ways: undermining their quest for representative government, damaging property and life without legal recourse, and ensuring that AQAP retains a presence in their country. Such a defeat in the war for “hearts and minds” is especially tragic when considering Yemenis’ fondness for Americans themselves.
Current U.S. policy presents a view diametrically opposed to Yemen’s streets, where the actions of Washington and its allies have blocked a continuation of the revolution.
“Over the past 15 months,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the latest “Friends of Yemen” Ministerial, “Yemen – with the support of all of its friends – has made important progress in implementing the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative. Yemenis elected a new leader for the first time in three decades, launched a major reform of their armed forces, regained control of large areas of their national territory held by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and today stand on the cusp of an historic National Dialogue.”
Burns’ statements are constructed on the boundary of inaccuracy. Yemenis selected Hadi out of necessity and coercion rather than free will, while Hadi himself was tasked to clean up a mess made by Saleh and the foreign policies that supported him. The so-called GCC initiative also excluded the same youth that the White House claims to support. Instead, the power-sharing agreement granted immunity for Saleh’s human rights abuses (some committed with U.S. equipment) and preserved military influence with the new government. That U.S. interests in Yemen have improved since Saleh’s resignation is unquestionable, even as U.S. policy remains unpopular with everyone outside the GCC initiative: the independent revolutionaries, northern-based Houthi sect and secessionist-minded Southern Movement. Yemen’s youth received the least seats of all parties – nearly four times less than Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) – in the heralded National Dialogue.
Further complicating the situation, the GCC’s power-sharing agreement obstructs deeply-rooted political causes in Yemen’s north and south, as their autonomous designs threaten the central government’s authority and, by extension, involved foreign powers. In February the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) released a statement warning against interference in Yemen’s affairs, only this statement targeted Saleh to the extent that it isolated a former Vice President and current Southern activist, Ali Salim Al-Beidh. The statement had minimal effect on Saleh, who copied the UNSC’s message (minus himself) during a speech to commemorate Hadi’s promotion, but it did spark Southern protests that led to clashes with the government and oppositional Islah party.
Hadi eventually met with Southern leaders to ease tensions and coax them into the National Dialogue, but the movement’s leaders and followers remain leery of participating under UN-GCC terms. While a national dialogue is needed to advance Yemen’s revolution, the present environment could degenerate into political warfare between the ruling GPC, Islah and Hirak. To some credit U.S. non-military assistance has increased since the revolution launched in January 2011. Problematically, the long-term reality in Yemen indicates that these measures serve as camouflage for widespread geopolitical interference. U.S. aid has risen above $100 million to keep pace with a similar figure in the military column, and this information is used to promote a comprehensive policy. Since military and counterterrorism spending is especially obscured in Yemen, one of Washington’s biggest “small wars,” State Department officials and CIA Director John Brennan can now claim with greater safety that non-military spending exceeds military spending.
However U.S. policy remains decisively oriented towards influencing Yemen’s valuable political and military spheres – economic development and humanitarian support furthers this goal.
Yemen’s revolution is effectively over in the eyes of UN, EU and GCC powers, and they have stopped at nothing to control its “transition.” In their world 2014’s elections will continue the reforms started by Hadi and Yemen will be gradually integrated into the GCC with Western assistance. Far from genuinely helping its people, U.S. policy in Yemen currently amounts to a joint neocolonialist takeover with neighboring Saudi Arabia, whose government rivals Washington in unpopularity. Both have worked tirelessly to prevent a national revolution in Yemen, while at the same time claiming to advance it.
“The transition is about to enter a new, critical, phase,” Burns told his audience in London. “While Yemenis courageously work to rebuild their country, extremists and their patrons are working hard to tear it down. The Co-Chairs called on all parties to commit to the principle of non-interference and the unity, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Yemen. This is an effort we endorse in the strongest terms.”
Rampant foreign interference is no secret amongst Yemenis and concerned observers. Burns’ own statements demonstrate the oxymoronic forces at work; supporting Yemen’s unity and territorial integrity, for instance, directly contradicts the principles of sovereignty and independence. Washington, Riyadh and their allies are not looking to create a new future based on self-determination, but to recreate Yemen’s old hegemonic model using new tactics and materials.
These “friends” will sell anything except the truth to Yemenis and Americans alike.
– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy. Updates on Twitter @RealistChannel. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.