Playing dumb: US policy in the face of popular protests

Yesterday the Yemen Peace Project had a chance to talk at length with a US State Department official about US policy toward Yemen and the current political and security situation there. I began by mentioning the March 8/9 incident in which security forces identified by witnesses as Republican Guard units attacked protesters at Sanʻa University with live ammunition and gas. I asked if the State Department or the White House would be issuing a formal condemnation of this attack, or the previous attacks on protesters in Ibb (thugs with guns and clubs) or ‘Amran (tanks and small arms). The official said that no such statement would come from the State Department, but that DoS would urge an investigation into the incident. I can’t quote my source, but DoS spokesman Mark Toner matched him almost ver batim in yesterday’s press briefing:

We’re still working to establish the facts of what happened. We’re aware that there was an altercation where security forces reportedly used tear gas and live fire to disperse protestors. We understand there was one fatality, and we certainly extend our condolences to that individual’s family. And we urge the Government of Yemen to investigate and hold accountable those who appear to have utilized excessive force.

Again, we’ve seen security forces in Sana’a. They’ve made efforts to improve security by preventing clashes between the demonstrators and the – screening demonstrators for weapons. But they need to do more to prevent these kinds of incidents in the future. We remain deeply concerned about ongoing violence in Yemen, and we continue to call on security forces and demonstrators alike to exercise restraint and to refrain from violence.

The laughable part of this statement is the idea that US officials are diligently “working to establish what happened.” US embassy staff in Sanʻa don’t go outside on a good day, much less head to the center of anti-government protests to conduct interviews. Bottom line, the US is going to strongly urge that an investigation be carried out by the same Yemeni forces who did the shooting. That investigation will (already has done) conclude that it was really the protesters who started the shooting. This will be a lie. The US will not raise the issue again.

More troubling is this insistence that Yemen’s security forces have been trying really hard to prevent violence. While the incident in question was the first instance of uniformed personnel firing on protesters in Sanʻa, they have been doing so with regularity, and horrific effect, in ‘Aden, and more recently in ‘Amran and maybe Saʻdah. And as Greg Johnsen and most of the Western freelance journalists currently in Yemen have made clear, the thugs responsible for most of the violence thus far in Sanʻa—the ones DoS thinks security forces are doing a great job of restraining—are largely plain-clothes soldiers and other government employees.

I stressed the fact that if it is Republican Guard and—as witnesses have reported in other cases—Counter-Terror units attacking protesters, that would mean that US funding and training is being used, in a very direct and undeniable way, in the repression of what President Obama has said are legitimate popular demonstrations. My source fell back on the statement that DoS does not have enough information to have an opinion on this.

I asked my source about the embassy’s ability to investigate incidents like this, or really to know anything about what’s going on in Yemen, from within the walls of their compound. He assured me that they do have their ways of gathering information, including asking other foreign missions in San‘a what’s going on. I was less than reassured by this.

I asked about Secretary Clinton’s statements on Iranian involvement in protests in Yemen and elsewhere. My source, strangely, was not aware of the Secretary’s claims, but was sure that the DoS does not have any reason to believe that Iran is involved in protests. We were also able to agree on the complete falsehood of prior claims by the Saleh regime of Iranian involvement in the Huthi movement. I have since emailed to my source copies of news articles quoting Clinton on this subject. I await a response.

The big take-away from this interview can be summed up this way: the US supports democracy everywhere, and insists that the rights of assembly and free speech are universal human rights. The US further insists that it is up to the Yemeni people to decide how and by whom they are governed. However, the US will only support a process of peaceful dialogue between the government and the opposition parties. This position essentially ignores the will of the Yemeni people. Protesters in all of Yemen’s cities have made it clear that most of them don’t trust the JMP to represent them, and the JMP, smartly recognizing this fact, has said that dialogue with the government is impossible while Saleh remains in power. I asked if, using the case of Egypt as a parallel, the US could foresee a point at which it may change its position and call for Saleh’s resignation. The clear message I got back was that US support for Saleh is essentially unconditional, and that the US really, really wants Saleh to stick around. DoS also insists that Saleh is sincere in his calls for dialogue and that it’s the opposition and the protesters who are preventing or sabotaging progress and reform.

Given the position stated above on the right of the Yemeni people to choose their own government, I felt it made sense to ask if the US position on the question of Southern secession might change, in light of the fact that over 70% of southerners support independence. The answer was a simple no. The US will continue to support Yemeni unity, essentially at any cost.

I can't say I was surprised by what I heard yesterday, but I was disappointed by the State Department's conviction that Saleh is leading the way forward, and that the opposition had better get on board or be left behind. This is willful ignorance. The US government isn't stupid. They know that no one is going to be punished in Yemen for killing protesters, and they know that Saleh isn't interested in sharing power or restructuring his rule in any meaningful way. That the US insists on pretending to believe otherwise makes it complicit, in my opinion, in the violent repression of protests and the trampling of democratic expression.