Amid growing pressure on President Barack Obama to intervene more forcefully in Libya, the White House Tuesday sharply rebutted charges by Yemen’s president that Washington is conspiring against his government and other Arab regimes.
"We don’t think scapegoating will be the kind of response that the people of Yemen or the people in other countries will find adequate," said Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney.
He was responding to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s accusation earlier in the day that the "storm" of unrest that has roiled the Arab world – and increasingly threatens his own regime – was "orchestrated from Tel Aviv and under Washington’s supervision".
"There is an operation room working for the media …in Tel Aviv to shake up the Arab nation," he told students at Sanaa University. "It is all run by the White House."
Analysts here discounted Saleh’s words, suggesting that they represented an effort by the increasingly besieged leader, who first came to power in North Yemen in 1978 and has ruled a united Yemen since 1990, to rally nationalist sentiment behind him.
While the administration has been critical of the sometimes lethal violence used by his security forces against demonstrators, it appears to support his continued rule, particularly in the absence of any clear alternative that would be both acceptable to Washington and command broad support.
"Many in the U.S. government hope he survives because no one knows what will come next," Thomas Krajeski, senior vice president of the National Defense University and a former ambassador to Yemen, told a conference on the situation in Yemen at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) here Tuesday.
Indeed, the Obama administration has treated Saleh as a key U.S. ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP), which has been tied to several attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, most notably the aborted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.
Washington more than doubled military and counterterrorist aid to Saleh’s government – from 70 million dollars in 2009 to more than 150 million dollars last year after the attack.
Last September, the U.S. Central Command proposed increasing security and counterterrorist assistance to the government to 1.2 billion dollars over five years. At the same time, both the U.S. and Britain announced plans to ramp up their development aid to some 120 million dollars over three years.
Saleh, who leads the Arab world’s poorest country, is currently facing perhaps his most difficult political challenge in his long career.
What began in late January as student demonstrations inspired by the uprising in Tunisia has blossomed into a full-blown crisis as key tribal leaders who have supported Saleh in the past are now demanding that he step down.
Last weekend, he lost the support of one of the country’s most prominent, Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar, in what most experts here consider a serious blow to his authority.
And on Monday, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who has long had close ties with Saleh (and who also acted as a mentor to Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden at one time), joined the growing chorus demanding his ouster.
"That’s a big deal," said Krajeski, who just returned from a trip to Yemen. "Saleh has tried hard to keep [al-Zindani] on his side."
"What are his chances for survival?" he went on. "I’d give him a 50:50 chance right now …based on his history and his ability to make deals," he added.
Saleh has tried to appease the opposition, first by announcing early last month that he would not run for re- election in 2013, and then on Monday proposing the creation of a national unity government that would include the opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Parties (JMP). His offer, however, was summarily rejected.
"The Yemeni government’s legitimacy was already low before all this started, especially in the south [of Yemen], and now it is worse," said Gen. James Jones (ret.), who served as Obama’s national security adviser until late last year, in a reference to the unprecedented wave of unrest rolling across the Arab world. "And now it is worse."
Despite its strong support for Saleh’s regime, Washington has often been frustrated by the Yemeni leader, who has generally resisted Western pressure to implement political and economic reforms.
At least, if not more important, he has diverted security and counterterrorist assistance intended for use against AQAP to deployment against the on-again off-again Houthi insurgency in the north and secessionist movements in the south, according to State Department cables obtained and disclosed by Wikileaks, even while he has permitted Washington to conduct air strikes against suspected AQAP targets.
While a cease fire announced last February has brought relative calm to the north, mainly peaceful protests have taken place in the region, as well as the capital, in recent weeks. In the south, however, violence by the security forces has been "the worst since the civil war", according to Jonathan Ruhe, the main author of a BPC report released in January, "Fragility and Extremism in Yemen".
According to Amnesty International, 27 people have been killed in the past two weeks – 25 of them in the south, and two in Sanaa.
"Events in Yemen are taking a serious turn for the worse and the Yemeni security forces are showing reckless disregard for human life," an Amnesty spokesman noted last Friday.
As it has in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, the Obama administration has urged the government to respect the right of peaceful assembly – advice that apparently contributed to Saleh’s ire Tuesday.
"Every day we hear a statement from Obama saying: ‘Egypt, you can’t do this; Tunisia, don’t do that’," he complained. "Are you president of the United States, or president of the world?"
In spite of such criticism, however, Washington is reluctant to abandon Saleh, at least at this point.
"In the context of AQAP [being able to] launch an attack and the partnership that Saleh has extended to us, it is in our homeland security interest that he continue to work with us," Garry Reid, the deputy secretary of defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, told IPS. At the same time, "We can’t have partners that attack their own citizens," he added.
"I hope they survive," he said, referring to Saleh, because "we can’t see who the next leader will be."
(Inter Press Service)