Where Democracy Is America’s Second Choice

For Washington, democracy promotion in Yemen continues to take a back seat to the fight against Al-Qaeda.


On April 24, Robert Swan Mueller III, the venerable director of the FBI, paid a visit to Yemen’s newly installed president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi (formerly President Saleh’s main lackey and Yemen’s Vice President). The trip came just after an airstrike two days earlier that successfully targeted Mohammed Saeed al-Umda, Yemen’s fourth most wanted individual and the person in charge of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) finances.

After the meeting, Mueller stated that the United States will continue to support the Yemeni government "with full force" in all respects. On April 26, two days after Mueller’s visit, President Obama approved the CIA’s request for expanded drone strike capabilities in Yemen. This new authority allows the CIA to target individuals even without knowing their identities, effectively permitting it to kill people based on suspicious behavior.

Though Yemen’s internal politics have changed dramatically since January 2011, U.S. strategy there has remained single-mindedly focused on eradicating AQAP. Democracy promotion, and the hopes of millions of Yemenis who supported the revolution, do not appear to be among the Obama Administration’s concerns in the country. Nowhere was this more clear than in a recent press conference in Sana’a, where Jeffrey Feltman, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, reinforced U.S. support for the existing transition plan, which doesn’t call for elections until February 2014 and which has widely left President Saleh’s patronage network intact. (His son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, still controls the Republican Guard and Special Forces – a fact that inspires considerable disquiet among members of the pro-democracy opposition.)

Since the beginning of the demonstrations against President Saleh’s regime, the U.S. has signally failed to support the pro-democracy youth movement, a group that consists largely of the young and dissatisfied men that AQAP recruits so assiduously. The youth movement, with its calls for democracy and broader representation, is the best hope for a more tolerant and stable Yemen. In April 2011, the youth movement openly petitioned the U.S. for support, only to be ignored. The U.S. instead supported the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) negotiations with the old regime, squashing any hopes of an authentic democratic revolution and antagonizing Washington’s most likely local allies. A few months later, Tawakkol Karman, one of the leaders of the group and the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, published an op-ed in the New York Times asking for the U.S. to support the youth movement even while explicitly approving America’s "right to attack terrorist sanctuaries." Just imagine a Yemen in which a democratically elected government openly aids American counter-terrorism operations with popular support — a far remove from the current situation. Sadly, after being ignored by Washington and subverted by U.S. support for former regime figures, the youth movement no longer asks for American help. As Khaled al-Anesi, a leader of the youth movement, stated in late February, "This revolution has been stabbed in the back."

Instead of advocating a better strategy, U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein has continued to emphasize the need for a vague "national dialogue" while casting aspersions on demonstrators who are literally dying to try and make Yemen a democratic country instead of kowtowing to the ancien regime. "We’ve also been clear in saying we don’t believe that the demonstrations are the place where Yemen’s problems will be solved," he stated in March. "We think that the problems have to be resolved through this process of dialogue and negotiations." This is empty rhetoric at its best. The lack of U.S. support means that these young men and women, who effectively ousted Saleh and continue to call for democratic institutions, have broadly failed to have a voice in the formation of Yemen’s new government or have their legitimate concerns be taken seriously. (Above, a Yemeni soldier looks at posters of protestors allegedly killed by security forces in an anti-goverment demonstration last year.)

As a result, Yemen’s pro-democracy activists largely blame the U.S. for failing to live up to its rhetoric — a disillusionment that potentially makes them vulnerable to recruitment by other well-organized forces that are against the existing regime, namely, extremist groups like AQAP and separatist movements. From their perspective, the only real changes in Yemen — the establishment of a semi-autonomous region by the Houthis and the propagation of sharia law in various cities in southern Yemen by Ansar al-Sharia — have come through violence. The U.S., meanwhile, has consistently conveyed the message that it is more interested in propping up the Yemeni government than promoting Yemeni democracy. Feierstein criticized a pro-democracy march from Taiz to Sana’a as "provocative" during a Christmas Eve 2011 press conference. Soon afterwards, 13 Yemeni demonstrators were killed by government security forces — so it’s hard to fault many for assuming that the ambassador was preemptively giving a pass to Saleh to target civilians. Some Yemenis were so angry at his remarks that they created an anti-Feierstein Facebook page and demanded his expulsion from the country. (Feierstein never disavowed his statement and the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a did not respond to requests for comment.)

By failing to stand by the democratic values that they espouse, the U.S. has abandoned Yemen’s most courageous, and most vulnerable, population: women. Without the vibrant and brave support of women across the country, thousands of whom joined the demonstrators in major cities, President Saleh would likely still be in power. In a country that has seen the continued erosion of individual female liberties over the past few decades, the Arab Spring in Yemen provided women with a voice and a platform to demand their rights as equal human beings. Instead of embracing these amazing individuals, the best examples of real change in the Middle East, the U.S. has chosen instead to ignore them, abrogating its responsibility to provide help to those who need it most and condemning them to a life of repression under AQAP in the South or Saudi-funded salafis in the North.

In contrast, by supporting the youth movement, the U.S. would be more likely to engender goodwill in the electorate, ultimately making it easier for a broad-based, democratically elected government to openly target foreign AQAP members in Yemen. Rather than keeping mum about the well publicized drone program, which has allowed the jihadis in Yemen to manipulate the conversation and report higher levels of civilian casualties (reminiscent of the Pakistani Taliban’s successful strategy to demonize the U.S.), Washington could openly negotiate the parameters of U.S. military action on Yemeni soil. There is, of course, some risk in a policy that depends on Yemenis rejecting foreign fighters in their communities, but it is one that would cement a long-term partnership between the two countries.

A true democratic transition, messy and likely to leave an even greater power vacuum, could indeed complicate the CIA’s relationship with Yemeni intelligence, a partner it relies on for intelligence to combat AQAP strongholds. Yet the most recent expansion of CIA capabilities compromises its role even further. How will U.S. analysts be able to tell the difference between Yemeni tribes that are plotting against the central government, and AQAP members that are stockpiling weapons (remember, the new framework allows the CIA to target individuals without verifying their identity)? How is the U.S. able to protect itself from taking sides in a civil war when it depends on a self-interested central government for targeting intelligence? It seems the U.S. has not learned anything from its most recent debacle, when U.S.-trained Republican Guards were complicit in targeting civilians in Taiz. (John Brennan, the architect of U.S. counter-terrorism policy and the former CIA station chief in Riyadh, has acknowledged as much, stating that the political turmoil in Yemen had caused U.S.-trained units "to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.")

In order to mitigate possible fallout, the U.S. would have to develop a broader strategy in Yemen that includes not just a high level counter-terrorism component, but also takes into consideration diplomacy and development goals. Unfortunately, Brennan has outsourced diplomacy and development efforts to Saudi Arabia. On the face of things this might not seem to be such a terrible idea; after all, Saudi Arabia has developed a significant patronage network with the tribes around the country over the past few decades, and is as committed as the U.S. to targeting AQAP (which has been known to target members of the Saudi royal family.) But this is precisely the specious argument that has fueled the growth of the local al-Qaeda franchise and radicalized the Yemeni population. The U.S. has a number of long-term goals in Yemen, all of which are being frustrated by Saudi Arabia’s involvement.

The U.S. would like to see a stable, less radicalized Yemeni population that is more hostile to al-Qaeda’s ideology. In order for this ideological change to take place, however, Yemenis would need to gain access to a well-rounded education, rather than the extremist vitriol of Wahhabist madrasas. But the latter is exactly the sort of mindset that the Saudis have been working hard to promote in Yemen since the 1970s, funding hundreds of schools around the country that taught children to become more extremist and even reject the more tolerant Yemeni schools of Islam, Zaydi Shi’ism in the north and Shafi’i-Sunnism in the south.

Finally, though the U.S. may intermittently advocate a democratic transition and an elected representative government in Yemen, its partner does not share these sentiments. As seen by the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain that violently put down peaceful protests, the last scenario the Saudi Royal Family wants on its border is a thriving democracy that respects more tolerant schools of Islam. To them, it would only be a matter of time before their own youth would ask: "If the Yemenis can do it, why can’t we?" But Yemenis can’t do it without real U.S. support, divorced from Saudi Arabia’s pernicious agenda.

The Obama Administration has dramatically ramped up drone strikes in Yemen, with some success at killing suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, the administration has not followed up these short-term security gains with counter-radicalization programs or engagement with the communities being targeted. Counter-terrorism is a tactic — not a strategy — that is meant to yield short-term security gains. In Yemen, however, the U.S. relies almost exclusively on counterterrorism, without providing a successful competing narrative against extremism at the same time. In his analysis of counter-terrorism approaches, Joseph Nye notes that "it is essential to have a narrative that appeals to the mainstream and prevents its recruitment by radicals." If the U.S. continues with this strategy, it will end up with a Yemeni population that associates it exclusively with death from above, an outcome that makes support for AQAP and violence more likely.

It is clear, today more than ever before, that counter-terrorism victories alone will not solve Amercia’s problems with Yemen. Even though a drone strike successfully targeted the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2002, and the Yemeni government arrested his successor in 2003, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a greater threat today than ever before. Targeting the group’s leadership has clearly failed to reduce Yemeni support for terrorist organizations and prevent radicalization. It is time for the U.S. to stop undermining democratic values and long-term stability in Yemen in exchange for short term counter-terrorism gains and a half-hearted continuation of the status quo. If Washington continues on this path, it will end up at best with another Somalia; at worse, another Afghanistan.

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