A difficult challenge in Yemen
Protests in the Middle East, inspired by Tunisia's popular uprising two weeks ago, pose a particularly difficult challenge to the administration. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama declared that "the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people."
But now the protests in Egypt, and particularly in Yemen, put the administration in a difficult position. In both countries, the U.S. has opted to support authoritarian leaders out of the view that stability served U.S. national security interests. As Marc Lynch writes, there's nothing new about this: "For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies -- to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today." As Matt Duss writes, given "that we've sponsored them for decades," the U.S. has a "responsibility to pressure these regimes away from violent crackdowns."
Yemen is also anything but stable, and of the three countries is perhaps least likely to transition to something resembling a peaceful democracy. It faces a rebellion from Shiite groups in the north and a separatist movement in the south. And now protesters, inspired by Tunisia, are demanding that Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has remained president of Yemen for more than thirty years, step down.
Both countries have been allies against al-Qaeda, but Yemen is where the most high-profile U.S. target since Osama bin Laden, American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, is located. The administration links several recent terrorism plots, including the infamous attempted underwear bombing in 2009 and the more recent plot involving printer cartriges, to al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The administration has relied on Saleh as a key partner in their counterterrorism efforts. The Washington Post's Dana Priest has reported that American forces have assisted the Yemeni government in counterterrorism operations against AQAP. Saleh has given the U.S. cover for its use of targeted drone strikes against AQAP by taking credit for them. Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen says that nevertheless, the drone strikes have provoked popular sympathies for extremists.
Johnsen has also argued that the administration's focus on seeing Yemen "only through the prism of counterterrorism" has produced the kind of instability they were trying to avoid. Yemen's population is also poorer, and there's far more potential for extremist groups to take advantage of a potential power vacuum.
The jury's still out on how these popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen will resolve themselves. As Lynch writes, such regimes are "quick studies when it comes to their own survival, and quickly adapt when challenged." But in deciding how to respond to Yemen, the administration faces the most acute choice between rhetoric and immediate national security interests.
| January 27, 2011; 10:51 AM ET
Categories: Foreign policy and national security
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