President Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, visited President Saleh in Riyadh recently. Almost nothing new was said in this meeting, but in that "almost" hides a great deal of trouble. The penultimate sentence of the White House press statement on the matter reads:
Mr. Brennan said that the United States is working closely with Yemen's friends and supporters in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Europe, and elsewhere to ensure that much needed assistance will flow to Yemen as soon as the GCC proposal is signed and implemented.
The Yemen Peace Project has, since its inception, called upon the US to cut off aid to the Saleh regime, or to make such aid contingent upon political reform. The contingency Brennan suggests, though, is absolutely contrary to the objective of reform. There are two major dangers with this formulation.
First, foreign aid to Yemen has always gone through Saleh himself, or members of his inner circle. Saleh has appropriated foreign military aid to fight his own political enemies, while non-military aid has mostly gone into the president's own pocket. The US administration thinks it's offering Saleh a way to help his country, but the fact is that President Saleh has absolutely no interest in securing the welfare of the Yemeni people, only in protecting his own wealth and power (though the latter is now greatly diminished). Right now, that means keeping his closest allies, particularly his son and nephew, in Yemen and in power. The continued presence of Ahmad and Yahya Saleh in Yemen is the main cause for the current stalemate, and the continuing loss of life in Yemen. But telling Saleh that aid will start pouring in once the GCC deal is signed only gives him more incentive to keep his relatives in place, directing a new flow of funds and perhaps a measure of power back into his own hands.
Second, this formulation denies the demands of Yemen's revolutionaries, the only ones in the equation that actually do care about their country. The White House is essentially telling them (despite the embassy's effort to reinterpret the message) that to secure foreign aid for Yemen, they must give up their movement for democracy and reform.
Gregory Johnsen called Saleh (before the assassination attempt) a warlord with half an army. He may never return to Yemen, and the dynamics within his inner circle may change if and when he finally signs the GCC deal. But whether Ahmad and Yahya continue to serve the interests of 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh, or whether the inner circle fragments after the president steps aside with each member pursuing his own goals, the result for the Yemeni people will be the same.
We have argued, along with many in Yemen, that the GCC deal represented an attempt to maintain the status quo. In fact its result could be much worse. What the US wants is a quick fix for Yemen, one that will allow the administration to pursue its stated objective of fighting al-Qa‘idah, and allow Mr. Obama to enter the 2012 election having not "lost Yemen." But if the deal goes ahead as envisioned, it will once again place power and foreign money in the hands of the most irresponsible, destructive elements in Yemen, leaving the country in tatters, and the Yemeni people at the mercy of the same warlords, newly empowered and rearmed.