Yemen’s uprising reached a new and critical point on Saturday, when the country’s president fled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He says he will be back, but opposition forces appear closer than ever to ending his rule.
On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported, “President Ali Abdullah Saleh's injuries from an attack last week are much graver than initially disclosed and could keep him out of the country for months … This raises the likelihood that he will be forced to yield power after refusing for months to give in to protesters and international calls for his exit."
It’s now clear that what’s at stake is whether the future Yemen is a force for or against Islamism and its terrorist vanguard.
As with every major development in the Middle East during his administration, President Obama and his aides are behind the curve, caught dumbfounded by events that do not fit their world view, and which move faster than the pace at which they appear capable of operating.
Unrest in Yemen began on January 27, with protestors calling for the ouster of President Saleh, who has ruled since 1978, and the establishment of real democracy. Despite rumors in April that the U.S. would end its contorted policy that basically amounted to hoping for the status quo, it would not be until late May—nearly four months later—that President Obama finally backed Saleh’s ouster publicly.
As with uprisings in Iran, Egypt and Syria, President Obama failed to side with pro-democracy forces when it mattered most, wishfully choosing instead to hope for reformers among the very forces of repression. Mr. Obama even phoned the Yemeni president on February 2nd to “welcome the significant reform measures” for which Saleh had feigned support.
Only much later did the tone change in regard to Yemen, which matters to U.S. security given that terrorists there tried to strike the American homeland as recently as last fall.
When Mr. Obama gave a dissertation-length speech about the Middle East on May 19, he found time to raise Yemen only once over the course of five thousand words. He said: “President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”
Need he, Mr. President?
The statement was classic Obama. It committed the U.S. to a policy of regime change well after the point at which it would have been most useful, and also without any specific policies or measures to help those who must do the dirty work of toppling an entrenched strongman. There was no coherent concept or plan to bias events toward a civilized, accountable order and against Islamists once the dictator is gone.
Protestors seeking democracy in Egypt received similar treatment.
The same is also essentially true in Libya, where freedom fighters are deeply grateful for allied air support, but probably wondering why Mr. Obama would launch a half-hearted war on their behalf but not arm them, recognize them, or allow them access to funds previously controlled by a dictator the president said “must go,” so they might finish the job of their own accord.
This incompetence in developing and implementing policy may very well be the result of the messianic view many of Mr. Obama’s aides hold of the president, and which he may hold himself. They still believe Obama is a transformational figure in history, capable of ‘bending its arc,’ and whose mere gestures and words can command the course of world events. The actual implementation of his vision is left to the mere mortals outside the White House gates.
And so despite the fact that the future courses of places like Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen will have an impact on American security and our way of life, events have basically been left to follow their own course, both during and after revolutions. White House policy is non-existent. Even words, which are cheap, have come too late and are consistently inconsistent.
It seems no one can explain this administration’s Middle East policy or programs, perhaps because there is no explanation. The president himself tried in his meandering May 19th speech on the Middle East, and he failed. The only thing that is clear is a now-familiar pattern of dangerous incompetence.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).