Nowhere has the Obama administration been more reluctant to embrace the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East than in Yemen. This is, in part, understandable.
According to the administration’s own intelligence officials, Yemen is home to the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate on the planet, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has authored a string of terror plots against the U.S. And administration officials see President Ali Abdullah Saleh, although corrupt and duplicitous, as perhaps the only partner in the country capable of offering vital counterterrorism assistance. Should Saleh fall, he could easily be replaced by someone worse, either by an Islamic fundamentalist or someone who is at least more sympathetic to the jihadist cause.
So, the administration has been reluctant to call for Saleh’s ouster.
This reluctance was on full display earlier this month when Ambassador Gerald Feierstein was interviewed in Yemen. According to a transcript of the ambassador’s comments published by Saba Net, Feierstein explained:
We’ve also been very direct with our friends in civil society and in the street protests, that the idea of “isqat al-nitham” [fall of the regime] is not really the answer to the problems, that there needs to be an idea of how to move beyond the change of leadership to build strong, stable, secure institutions of government for Yemen. So our question is always, if President Saleh leaves, then what do you do on the next day?
In a press conference with reporters on March 13, Feierstein was asked point blank: “When do you think that [Saleh] should leave?” Feierstein hedged:
We don't think that it's up to us. Look, I'm not here to be Ali Abdullah Saleh's lawyer. I don't have to defend what he thinks or what he says. But looking at it from the outside, what we want is what is acceptable to the Yemeni people. Whether he stays until 2013 or he leaves in 2011 or he goes in 2012, not our issue. Our issue is that we want there to be an agreement that allows for a peaceful transition and transfer based on dialogue and negotiation and that can also address the other issues.
The problem is that Saleh’s days are almost certainly numbered and by pushing for talks, when the crowd is pushing for action, the Obama administration appears to be siding with a loser.
Another reporter explicitly made this point during the March 13 press conference:
So is there still any potential for a dialogue and how can the two sides- people are saying it's not the Joint Meeting Parties that is represented in the street, it's the whole people who are revolting against the regime - and when you call for dialogue with the regime, you are trying to repress the wish and the will of the people who would like to change the regime.
It’s hard to believe the Obama administration can stick with this approach. It’s hard to believe it should. Surely it’s time for Saleh to step down. Indeed, there is every indication he is going to go, whether America blesses the move or not.
While the future of a post-Saleh Yemen is far from certain, every day he stays the situation gets worse. The administration rightly says that it wants to prevent as much violence as possible, but Saleh is escalating tensions – not reducing them – by clinging to power. And every day the Obama administration pushes for more “dialogue,” resentment for America grows. Indeed, as a friend in Yemen recently told me: “President Saleh is the face of America.” Therefore, as Yemenis see it, America gets part of the blame when Saleh’s forces kill protesters – whether we deserve it or not.
Perhaps most importantly, let us not forget that Saleh is far from an ideal partner in the fight against al Qaeda. Throughout his reign, and especially since September 11, 2001, al Qaeda has only grown stronger in his country. Saleh has skillfully played the rising terrorist threat to his own advantage. He is duplicitous and corrupt – always cutting deals with whoever will pay the highest price. And he has backed some of the most dangerous al Qaeda-affiliated characters in Yemen even in the face of substantial international pressure.
One of them is Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani. In 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department and United Nations added Zindani to their lists of persons affiliated with al Qaeda. The Treasury Department explained that Zindani “has a long history of working with [Osama] bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders,” recruited for al Qaeda’s training camps, helped purchase weapons for al Qaeda, and served as a contact for Ansar al Islam (an Iraqi al Qaeda affiliate), among other nefarious activities.
In response to the designations, Saleh did the opposite of what the international community demanded. In 2005, the year after Zindani’s designation, the cleric traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of Saleh’s official delegation. And in its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2007, the State Department noted that: “Yemen continued to take no action to bar [Zindani’s] travel or freeze his assets in compliance with its UN obligations. Throughout the year, President Saleh continued to voice public support for al Zindani and his Al Iman University.”
In his interviews with the Yemeni press, Ambassador Feierstein has openly worried about Zindani rising to power. Zindani “is on the terrorism list both of the United States and the United Nations,” Feierstein noted in his press conference with reporters, “and so would we have a problem if he were elected President, absolutely...”
But the administration’s de facto man in Yemen, President Saleh, has done nothing to curb Zindani’s activities any way. And any notion that Saleh could keep Zindani in his box was disproven early on in Yemen’s uprising when Zindani promised, “An Islamic state is coming.” Zindani added that Saleh “came to power by force, and stayed in power by force, and the only way to get rid of him is through the force of the people.”
Thus, after years of protection, Zindani rewarded Saleh with open threats.
Saleh’s counterterrorism cooperation has been uneven in other areas too. For example, al Qaeda terrorists, including current AQAP leaders and some who participated in the USS Cole bombing, have basically walked out of Yemeni prisons. In some cases, Saleh’s government openly allowed them to walk; in other cases, it looked the other way when they did.
Saleh has undoubtedly provided some significant help in the fight against al Qaeda. Yemeni government forces have battled al Qaeda fighters. Saleh has provided cover for unpopular American airstrikes. And Saleh’s regime has provided actionable intelligence on al Qaeda’s operations.
But this assistance has come with a price (hundreds of millions of dollars in funds for counterterrorism efforts and humanitarian aid) and a cost (a deteriorating security situation coupled with ever increasing anti-Americanism).
The Obama administration needs to play a constructive role, as much as it can, in guiding Yemen’s political future. America’s influence may very well be limited, but that doesn’t mean the administration should stick to the same failing policy. President Saleh is Yemen’s past. And the more he stays in the present, the less America will have to say about Yemen’s future.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.