Obama Fumbles Yemen

In June, an explosion rocked the presidential palace leaving President Saleh severely injured. Millions rejoiced when Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, assuming he would never return. However neither the Saudis nor the United States want too much change. Thus, the Obama administration endorsed Vice President Mansour Hadi as interim leader although Hadi refuses to assume the presidency as required by the Yemeni constitution.

The U.S. government opposes the protesters’ demand for a transitional council and instead supports a deeply flawed plan drafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC plan calls for Saleh to pick his successor and resign in return for immunity from prosecution. It proposes a unity government of the hegemonic ruling party and ineffective opposition parties, the JMP. This approach followed by quick elections would re-entrench the Saleh regime. Saleh agreed and reneged three times, using weeks of negotiations to empty the banks, smuggle oil, and reposition troops. The protesters were incensed.

With nearly half the government and military and most of the public calling for regime change, in March, Saleh’s pretense of legitimacy was bolstered by U.S. statements and especially the State Department’s urging dialog among political parties to resolve the “political crisis.”

In his Middle East speech in May, President Obama devoted one line to Yemen, calling on “our friend” Saleh to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. During a July visit, U.S. officials warned the JMP against escalating protests or recognizing a transitional council. Obama administration officials merely meekly urge Saleh to accept the GCC deal, which in fact signals tolerance toward the regime.

The hundreds of millions of dollars in counter-terror funding allocated to Yemen since 2006 ran through Saleh’s son and nephews (known locally as the Four Thugs) who head the security services, counter-terror units, and other forces. The aid is stolen by them and at times they even help al-Qaeda. Since February, the Four Thugs are too busy attacking the Yemeni public to take on al- Qaeda. After warning of an al-Qaeda takeover, the state withdrew forces from Abyan and al-Qaeda quickly moved in to occupy Zinjibar City. Yemenis rather uniformly assert coordination of the events, as the Saleh regime historically has had cordial relations with al-Qaeda.

Thus, American policy is aimed at defending an unpopular, corrupt, and repressive system on the grounds that it helps combat al-Qaeda. The problem is that the regime is not effective in doing so.

The Saudis, too, support the regime, seeing it as a bulwark against Shia rebels. The irony is that while al-Qaeda has very little popular support in Yemen, the U.S and Saudi policies, by destroying any political alternative and backing a government that doesn’t really fight al-Qaeda, may end by strengthening that group’s appeal and the territory it controls.