Is US Aid Suppressing Yemen's Freedom Struggle?
Not So Tough Talk
As Yemen’s security forces have escalated their violence against demonstrators this spring, the Obama administration has offered mixed signals regarding Saleh, but has yet to issue an outright condemnation of the dictator, no less sever ties with a leader seen as crucial to the fight against Al Qaeda. “We have had a good working relationship with President Saleh. He's been an important ally in the counterterrorism arena,” said US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on March 23. “But clearly, there's a lot of unhappiness inside Yemen. And I think we will basically just continue to watch the situation. We haven't done any post-Saleh planning, if you will.”
On April 5, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney came out more forcefully. “The United States strongly condemns the use of violence by Yemeni government forces against demonstrators in Sanaa, Taiz, and Hodeida in the past several days,” he said. “The Yemeni people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and we remind President Ali Abdullah Saleh of his responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Yemenis who are exercising their universal right to engage in political expression. “
That same day, however, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell was more equivocal, justifying enduring US support for Yemen’s strongman as a “prudent course of action,” while including the protestors as the equals of the security forces in his condemnation of the use of force: “The protests, the demonstrations need to be nonviolent. Obviously, the government needs to respond to them in a nonviolent manner. So we are—we condemn the violence all around.”
Morrell also sought to distance the Pentagon’s aid for the country’s security forces from the violence being meted out in Yemen’s streets. He told reporters, “To suggest that the aid to Yemen has somehow been used against protesters I think is a leap of faith for which there is no evidence to support.” Recent reports, however, suggest that Yemen's elite US-trained counterterrorism troops have now been deployed in the capital, Sanaa, to deal with the massive ongoing protests.
Late last year, the Pentagon floated a new proposal to pump up to $1.2 billion more into Yemen’s security forces over the next five years. However, with protesters in the streets week after week in vast numbers and significant elements of the military defecting from the regime, the Obama administration failed to write Saleh a check and began quietly urging him, through back-channel communications, to hand over power—assumedly to a successor likely to favor US interests.
Finally, on April 23, after Saleh seemingly agreed to an arrangement brokered by Arab mediators that would grant immunity from prosecution to his family and him, and eventually shift power to his deputy for an interim period, the Obama administration threw its support behind the plan. A spokesman characterized it as “responsive to the aspirations of the Yemeni people.” Not only have many opposition protesters rejected the deal, while Saleh’s troops continue to attack them, but the dictator has slowly backed away from it as well.
And yet, despite weeks of violence that have left hundreds dead or wounded, President Obama has yet to publicly and unequivocally call for Saleh to step down as he did, albeit belatedly, with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and, more recently, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Sending a Message
Earlier this month, Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni human rights activist and antigovernment protest leader, told the New York Times of her anger at Obama for his failure to issue such a call. ''We feel that we have been betrayed,'' she said. Hamza Alkamaly, another prominent youth leader, echoed the same sentiments: ''We students lost our trust in the United States.''
After watching two allied autocrats fall in Tunisia and Egypt, the United States has focused on its periodic enemy Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and has done little of substance to advocate for, let alone facilitate, demands for democracy and social change by protesters in allied states that are more integral to its military plans in the region, including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Instead, Washington has continued to support repressive governments to which it has provided training, weapons and other military equipment that has already been used or could be used to suppress grassroots democratic movements.
In the case of Bahrain, the US has provided millions of rounds of live ammunition, helicopters, and tanks. For Saudi Arabia, it was a weapons deal worth tens of billions of dollars that will have Saudi pilots training in the US In Iraq, the US is aiding the very units of the security forces implicated in crackdowns on the free press. And these are only a few examples of recent US efforts in the Middle East.
A survey of Yemeni adults conducted in January and February by the US-based polling firm Glevum Associates found exceptional hostility to the United States. Ninety-nine percent of those surveyed viewed the US government’s relations with the Islamic world unfavorably, 82 percent considered US military influence in the world “somewhat bad” or “bad,” 66 percent believed that the United States hardly ever or never took into account the interests of countries like Yemen and just 4 percent “somewhat” or “strongly approved” of President Saleh’s cooperation with the United States.
The numbers could hardly get more dismal, but anger and resentment can deepen and become even more entrenched. When protesters look to the skies over Sanaa in the days and weeks ahead, they may notice new American-made, US taxpayer-financed helicopters hovering above them. Unless the Hueys are seen ferrying the dictator away in a scene reminiscent of Saigon in 1975, Yemenis—more than two-thirds under the age of 24—are likely to remember for a very long time which side the United States took in their freedom struggle.