The word "Yemen" has not been spoken very often in State Department press briefings of late. Two weeks ago (the last time a question about Yemen was asked in such a briefing) DoS spokesperson Victoria Nuland seemed completely disinterested in answering questions about President Saleh's possible return. "Whether he stays, whether he comes back," she said, "we need him to sign this GCC agreement and move on, allow his country to move on. So our position is unchanged." Readers of this blog already know how I feel about the GCC deal. It's insulting to the people of Yemen, and completely irrelevant to the political process, because it excludes most of the factions that need to be included for a real resolution of the current situation. The US administration's continuing insistence is basically an admission that the US is not interested in playing any role in such a resolution, and a slap in the face to Yemen's protesters. Unfortunately, the US is still involved in Yemen in other ways.
Just over a month ago, back when 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh still looked frail and beaten, President Obama's CT advisor, John Brennan, went to visit him in Riyadh. The White House assured us that Brennan was trying to convince Saleh to step down. We were told that the US insisted on a peaceful and immediate transfer of power in Yemen. We were told that Brennan even takallum-ed a little 'arabiyah to drive the point home. But the evidence suggests that the administration's mind was elsewhere. While Brennan was doing his "y‘ani shwayah mumkin" routine in Riyadh, the Pentagon and CIA were supposedly hard at work ramping up their "covert" war against AQAP (by "covert" I mean "constantly leaked to the press in order to make the administration look proactive").
The real signal that the US administration is not, in fact, committed to a peaceful transition in Yemen came at the beginning of this month, when Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers visited San‘a to meet with the chief of staff of Yemen's (regime-loyal) army. Neither DoD nor the White House felt like talking about this meeting, so we don't have much to go on other than the Yemeni state media's account, according to which the two men discussed military cooperation and the ongoing fight against AQAP.
The optimist in me wants to believe that Vickers was talking to the chief of staff about how Yemen's army can stop killing civilians and play a positive role in the dismantling of the Saleh regime. But I don't think that's what happened. Were the US committed to Saleh's removal, Saleh would be gone. Were the US committed to Yemeni self-determination, the process of forming a new government, free of the Saleh family and the regime's inner circle, would be much further along. Clearly the Obama administration isn't supporting President Saleh, but its confused policy is enabling his persistence.
But there's more to hate about America's current confused policy than its impact on the Yemeni people. The Obama administration and congress should be looking at how their short-sighted decisions affect American security and interests in the Middle East. Since the start of the "Arab Spring," Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscle and showing the world that it has the capability and the will to pursue a regional policy that may be at odds with those of its western allies. Al Saud has always seen Yemen as its plaything, and has an interest in a certain level of continued instability in Yemen which is directly at odds with American interests. By thoughtlessly promoting the GCC deal instead of trying to engage with the various anti-regime factions in Yemen, the US is effectively letting the KSA dictate the terms for future engagement with Yemen.
It's also pretty clear that the escalation of the "covert war" against AQAP is designed mainly to bolster Obama's counter-terror cred in the run-up to the 2012 elections. Otherwise the super-secret plan to build a new airbase in Yemen wouldn't have been leaked to every single journalist in the world before the lease has even been typed up. There has already been plenty of debate among analysts over the effectiveness of drones in Yemen. To my mind the most obvious argument against the current US drone/missile campaign is that it has killed far more civilians than AQAP operatives (I would estimate the ratio at about 10:1). Aside from the simple fact that killing people is wrong and should be avoided whenever possible, the killing of innocent, non-terrorist Yemenis has several negative effects on the counter-terrorism effort in general.
One of these effects is that it hands AQAP a ready-made recruiting tool even without launching a single missile. Obama et al. seem to have forgotten that Bin Laden's original rallying cry back in the 1990s was the expulsion of infidel armies from the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. The presence of US troops and military facilities in Saudi Arabia inspired many of al-Qa‘idah's early recruits. Do the policy makers in Washington not think that AQAP will use the construction of new US bases on Yemeni soil to recruit Yemenis? I admit I don't know the miles-per-gallon figures for Predators and Reapers, but would the tactical advantages of launching drones from Hodaydah instead of Djibouti really outweigh the rhetorical advantages this move has already given AQAP?
What the US needs to do is stop running its mouth in all directions, and put together a policy toward Yemen--the real Yemen, not the boogeyman Yemen of congressional hearings and campaign speeches--that considers American interests and the needs of the Yemeni people. If we wait until after the 2012 elections, it may be too late.