State Department

Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates Compliance with NDAA Section 1290 - September 2018

NDAA Section 1290 conditions further United States refueling assistance to the Saudi-led coalition’s air raids in Yemen on whether the Secretary of State can certify to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are undertaking specific steps to support a peace process and reduce civilian harm in Yemen. Drawing from the language of Section 1290, we briefly analyze the extent to which Saudi Arabia and the UAE have undertaken these measures and provide a recommendation for further congressional action.

State Department: Yemen Faces Great Difficulties in Fighting Human Trafficking

This week, the State Department published its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks governments on their efforts to combat human trafficking. Yemen is classified as a Special Case in the report because of the increased difficulties in obtaining information about human trafficking due to the ongoing war. The conflict in Yemen has intensified the magnitude of violence and lawlessness in the country while hindering the government’s ability to address and prevent human trafficking. The violence and accompanying economic and humanitarian crises have left significant numbers of people vulnerable to human trafficking, whether it takes the form of forced labor, sexual exploitation, or underage military recruitment:

Human Rights in Yemen in 2016: “Impunity was persistent and pervasive”

The US Department of State recently released their 2016 Human Rights Country Report on the state of human rights in Yemen. According to the report, “impunity was persistent and pervasive” in Yemen, that contributed to gross human rights abuses by multiple actors throughout the year. The greatest human rights issues in Yemen were:

President Obama, take two

This week began with the second inauguration of Barack Obama here in the US, and with a series of air strikes--likely carried out by American drones--in Yemen. In fact, there have been six or seven strikes within the last week, though the exact number of resultant casualties is unknown. Along with these "kinetic" events, recent weeks have featured another kind of activity from President Obama. Mr. Obama has announced his nominations for CIA Director and Secretary of Defense. If things go according to plan, John O. Brennan--who has been Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor and is generally thought to be the most important man in Washington for Yemen policy--will take over the CIA, and Chuck Hagel will head to the Pentagon. Obama's nominee for Secretary of State, John Kerry, breezed through confirmation hearings yesteday. Mr. Kerry said during his hearings that he wants to see a demilitarization of US foreign policy, that "we cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontation." I couldn't agree more, as any reader of this blog knows. I wish Mr. Kerry the best, and I do expect that he'll try to redirect this country's foreign policy priorities to some extent. But it'll be an uphill battle, especially when it comes to Yemen. Within his own department, the rising trend of the fortress embassy (exemplified by the growing "Green Zone" around the embassy in San‘a) is a major hindrance to this objective. And Kerry will have to claw back control of the Yemen portfolio from the NSC, DoD, and CIA , if he even wants it. While I'd love to see him really shake things up at State, I don't know that Kerry is willing to take the kind of risks that might disqualify him from higher office in the future.

Gregory Johnsen and Micah Zenko, among others, have made the case against John Brennan as CIA director (and indeed, against John Brennan as decent human being), based in large part on his handling of America's war in Yemen. There are others who argue in Brennan's favor. Some say he has worked within the president's CT team to limit the use of targeted killings, and that he will work to demilitarize the CIA. Joshua Foust gives Brennan the benefit of the doubt on that issue and explains the choices Brennan will face at CIA in this brief piece.

Chuck Hagel will be, if confirmed, the first former enlisted soldier to serve as Secretary of Defense. As a young man at war in Vietnam, he was wounded and decorated multiple times. Critics in congress see Hagel as not hawkish enough to lead the country's military. Hagel himself says that he is not a pacifist, but will do anything in his power to avoid involving America in a new ground war. This conviction sounds like a pretty good fit with Obama's idea of war; this administration favors a "small footprint" in foreign operations, hence the focus on air power and cooperation with local forces in Yemen.

It's doubtful that any of these men will push the Obama Administration toward any major changes in its policy toward Yemen if status quo is what the president has in mind. It is possible, however, that Mr. Obama himself is interested in trying a new strategy in Yemen and elsewhere.  His administration is notoriously opaque, so if he and his team are planning to significantly change their approach to certain foreign policy challenges, the public shouldn't expect to hear it from the president until such plans have been implemented and appear to be bearing fruit.

US Yemen policy: worse than you thought

Over the past few days, most Yemen-watchers (both Yemeni and foreign) on the internets have expressed dismay over the possibility that the United States would allow President/Former President/Honorary President 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh into this country. As of yesterday, if the New York Times' sources are to be believed, the Obama administration had as good as made up its security-addled mind to grant Saleh a visa "for legitimate medical treatment" in New York City. I've talked to a few people this week who don't understand why I think this is a terrible idea. If you're one of these people, I suggest you read Andrew Exum's post from last night on the subject, because I don't feel like repeating what's already been well said. The main points I'd like to make are that, while we all know by now that Obama's CT advisor John Brennan has more say on Yemen policy than the entire State Department, the US government has been pursuing a full-court press of stupidness when it comes to Yemen and Arabia in general, and that the administration is not prepared for the consequences of this stupidity.

On Friday and Saturday the Saleh regime's security forces attacked protesters who had made a five-day march from Ta‘iz to San‘a, killing at least 10 and injuring dozens. US Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein decided this would be a good time to say publicly and on the record that the marchers were not, in fact, peaceful protesters, but agents of chaos and violence. Even for Yemenis accustomed to America's arrogance and wrongheadedness, this statement was shocking.

The administration officials quoted in the NYT article above are quick to blow off any suggested parallels between their decision to host Saleh now and the Carter administration's welcoming of the Shah of Iran in 1979. They've got all kinds of justifications for the decision, which might even sound convincing to some Americans. These justifications are misguided and dangerous. Let me spell this out in terms simple enough for John Brennan to understand: for 11 months, Yemenis have demanded the ouster of Saleh and the establishment of a democratic government. For 11 months, the US has refused to support those demands; has refused to condemn Saleh's murderous repression of his people; has tried to force unwelcome, Saudi-crafted false solutions down Yemen's throat; has repeatedly blamed protesters for the regime's violence against them; has continued to kill innocent Yemeni civilians in ill-conceived and poorly-executed CT efforts; has continued to support the regime's military; and now appears ready to allow Saleh to take a free vacation in New York while his children continue to murder Yemenis. In short, the Obama administration is treating the people of Yemen as The Enemy. Can any of us really expect Yemenis not to return the favor?

Mr. Brennan, how do you think this will end?

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.