Hadi and his "friends," part I

This was a big week for President Hadi. The annual UN General Assembly general debate was his first big-time outing as a head of state; his first official visit to the White House as president came yesterday (he met with VP Joe Biden and John Brennan); he co-chaired the Friends of Yemen meeting at the UN; and in his absence, Yemen celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1962 revolution, which established the Yemen Arab Republic. I would like to say it was a good week, and that President Hadi represented Yemen well. I would really like to say that, but I won't. In my opinion, Hadi did a poor job of representing the interests of the Yemeni people, and failed to set appropriate and useful priorities for international involvement in Yemen.

This afternoon President Hadi spoke at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Rather than re-hash the speech and question-and-answer session, I'll let you read my tweets (and a few by analyst Katherine Zimmerman) about it. You can also watch the video here.

I was seriously disappointed by Hadi's performance today, but I think I understand what he was trying to do, and it's important to understand. When foreign leaders come to the US, they generally come to ask for something. The smart ones know that the best way to plead their case is to stay "on-message" at all times. By focusing on security and counter-terrorism, Hadi was telling his American backers what he believes they want to hear. In fact, I think his comments told us a good deal more about American priorities and interests than we ever learn from listening to US officials.

US State Department officials, along with President Obama's counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, have insisted that the US approach to Yemen's multitude of problems is "comprehensive," and have even tried to convince us that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is America's foremost concern. Yet President Hadi did not once use the word "humanitarian" in his remarks. He said nothing about the critical food insecurity that faces 45% of his countrymen, or the water shortage that threatens the entire country's future, or the lack of health services that is costing hundreds of lives throughout Yemen. He focused entirely on security threats, mainly the threat posed by AQAP, but also the nefarious actions of Iran, just in case American audiences are bored with al-Qa‘idah. Even the economic crisis was phrased as a security threat. Hadi repeatedly brought up Yemen's high unemployment figures, but suggested that the reason to worry about unemployment is that it leaves young people vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists.

The take-away is that, no matter what John Brennan and his buddies tell us, the president of Yemen firmly believes that security and counter-terrorism are America's only concerns in Yemen, and the only causes that will draw American (financial) assistance. And if that's what President Hadi believes--after a week of meeting with high-level US and international officials--I think we should take his word for it.

Of course it's no news flash that the Obama administration prioritizes these things; we and most other observers have been saying that for ages. But it is very important to understand that Hadi feels his relationship with outside powers is limited to these issues. The pressure he's getting from the US (and other allies as well) is defining his presidency, and it may very well cost him what legitimacy he has in the eyes of the Yemeni people.

One final note: the part of Hadi's remarks that has garnered the most attention thus far is the brief segment of the Q&A session in which he talked about American drones. Foreign Policy has already rushed out what I think is a misleading and sensationalist blog post saying that Hadi "expressed unwavering support for the controversial CIA drone program in his country." This is simply not true. Hadi praised the US for sharing information in the fight for Abyan, and he praised drones for their "pinpoint precision." He admitted that the Yemeni air force can't carry out nighttime operations, and that drones do things his forces can't. (I don't think this made anyone at the White House very happy, since Obama's people never acknowledge drone strikes in Yemen or elsewhere, and have encouraged Hadi and his predecessor to take "credit" for American strikes in the past.) But at no point did he say a single word about US drone policy, or about the CIA and US military programs that operate drones in Yemen. It should also be said that his answers were all very poorly prepared and delivered in a rambling fashion that at times bordered on non-nonsensical.

I understand that many people, including many Yemenis, will interpret Hadi's rather off-the-cuff comments on drones as "unwavering support" for lethal American operations in Yemen, just as Foreign Policy has done (and this goes to the heart of what I said above concerning Hadi's legitimacy). But I think the record should show what the man said, as well as what everyone else said about what he said.

If anything, the fact that Hadi said what he said should demonstrate how out of sync he is with Washington. The first rule of Obama's drone policy has always been "try not to talk about drone policy," and when that fails, it's "absolutely don't ever take responsibility for specific actions." Now President Hadi has gone in front of the whole world and said that any time someone gets blown up after dark in Yemen, the Americans did it. This is hardly a man in lockstep with the US administration.

UPDATE 9/29/2012: Today Foreign Policy Managing Editor Blake Hounshell has published his notes from an interview he conducted with Hadi yesterday. In the interview, Hadi "confirmed that he personally signs off on all drone strikes conducted by his American ally." In my book, that counts as an endorsement of US drone policy, even if the stuff he said during the Wilson Center Q&A didn't. I seriously doubt the statement is true, but if that's what he wants people to think, then he'll have a hard time avoiding blame for all future civilian casualties in Yemen.