Political Analysis

The Diplomatic Tug-of-War

President Obama discusses the parcel bomb affair with his top advisers

Misgivings, Awkwardness Characterize Yemeni-American Relations in 2010

By the beginning of 2010, no country had registered the kind of frantic media and policy attention in the United States as much as Yemen.   The bumbling attempt of 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdul Muttalib to down a US-bound flight with explosives lodged in his underpants galvanized the focus of American officialdom on the country.

What followed was a year-long spectacle of cajoling, mutual-recriminations, and attacks – verbal and otherwise.  The mistrust between the two countries is the basis of what might rightly be called the most awkward bilateral relationship in the world this past year.

Immediately after the incident, Senator Joseph Lieberman set the standard in hawkish rhetoric for the coming months, telling Fox News Sunday, “Somebody in our government said to me in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, [that] Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.”

Yemen had been a source of anguish for US government officials for the last decade, since the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and repeated attacks on the embassy here.  But the Christmas attack launched a new scramble to influence the Yemeni situation.

A somewhat patronizingly named “Friends of Yemen” conference was hastily convened with British sponsorship in late January, and Western frustrations were voiced with little hesitation.

Secretary of State Clinton declared, “I personally believe that now is the moment for the Yemeni government to really step up and do what it has said it will do.

“You can’t just continue to make promises in the face of very tough challenges like the ones Yemen is facing without being expected to actually manage and resolve some of those problems.”

While Yemeni officials urged Clinton and then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, as well as the 18 other national delegations present, to appreciate the complexity of Yemen’s domestic situation, the American side urged the country’s urgent ratification of an International Monetary Fund economic adjustment package, and the enactment of a 10-point domestic reform plan.

Nor was the U.S. executive branch alone in its newfound fixation with Yemen’s governance.  Senators Kerry, Feingold, and Feinstein drafted a resolution “urging the implementation of a comprehensive strategy to address the instability in Yemen,” which cited the threat by al-Qaeda as an impetus for America to help set Yemeni domestic affairs in order.

Yemeni officials predictably chafed under the demands and accusations, citing Abdul Mutallab’s foreign nationality and the prominently Saudi profile of the “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” organization.

In a March interview with CNN, Clinton again criticized Yemen, and characterized treatment of women in the country as a national security threat to the United States: “when you have a population of a country denied the fundamental rights we stand for… when you look across conflict zones where we spend a lot of our time worrying, from Afghanistan, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Somalia, to Yemen, every place we worry about is a place where women are denied their rights.”

Amid the diplomatic skirmishes, the US Department of State issued its yearly report card for Yemen’s human rights record for 2009 in March.

The document was a long, withering blast, which criticizing government policy ranging from alleged mistreatment of religious minorities, repression of journalists, military excesses, torture, corruption, and immigrant abuse.

But in June, a long-anticipated Amnesty International report implicating America in the missile strikes on a village in Abyan governorate the previous December.  US conduct of the attack, which had claimed dozens of innocent lives, was long an open secret among Yemeni officials and the general public.  Confirmation by the rights group, however, renewed ire among opposition and dissident groups.

The revelations stoked tensions unleashed by a botched US airstrike the previous month which had killed Mareb Deputy Governor Sheikh Jaber al-Shabwani, a major local player and government ally.  Media accounts cited Yemeni officials’ rage and disbelief at the strike, which had apparently targeted a wanted al-Qaeda leader.

American sources remained tight-lipped about the incident, while al-Shabwani’s tribe attacked oil pipelines and threatened to seek satisfaction in the capital itself.  Intense government negotiation and a generous payment of restitution finally defused the tensions wrought by the US attack.

Meanwhile, Washington-based think tanks, a major source of US policy information, had been producing a series of frighteningly-titled, if repetitive, reports on Yemen. “Don’t Take Your Eyes off Yemen,” “Yemen on a Knife’s Edge,” “Yemen on the Brink,” and “Yemen’s Forever War” articulated the general inside-the-beltway sentiment on the country.

America’s highest legal organs also tired their hands at describing the Yemeni situation.  In the height of hyperbole, the New York Police Department’s intelligence division labeled Anwar al-Awlaki “the most dangerous man in the world.”

Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department have rebuffed the lawsuits brought about by rights groups and the radical cleric’s father, an influential and well-connected member of the Yemeni government, who insist that the death warrant put out against al-Awlaki, a US citizen, is unconstitutional.

“He’s up there — one, two, three, four. I don’t know. He’s on the list of people that worry me the most.  It is one of the things that keeps me up at night.  You didn’t worry about this even two years ago — about individuals, about Americans, to the extent that we now do.  We want to neutralize him,” Holder said in a press conference last week.

Nor did the American media stray far from this discourse.  A long profile of the country which appeared in the New York Times magazine in July asked, quite rhetorically, “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?”

The words and deeds of the Americans toward Yemen this year seem to provide a resounding, “yes.”

Military aid and training assistance was raised to unprecedented sum of $155 million.  Though Yemeni officials alleged request for $6 billion was rebuffed, the United States Central Command, according to anonymous sources, has proposed a $1.2 billion military and training aid package to Yemen over the course of the next six years.

Also, career diplomat Gerald Feierstein, one of the major diplomatic players in America’s “Af-Pak” war effort, was transferred from his post in Islamabad to Sana’a.

The parcel bomb plot in late October, claimed by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda, brought the immediate concern and comment of President Obama and his top advisors on Yemen.

But, of course, the embarrassment and finger-pointing associated with the disclosure of classified US diplomatic cables in late November was the low-point of Yemeni-American relations, at least in terms of diplomacy.

The minutes of conversations between high Yemeni and American officials were related in all their excruciating and revealing detail.  Everything from the airstrikes affair, Yemen’s much maligned efforts against al-Qaeda, as well as the Saudi and Yemeni war against the Houthis was exposed, uncensored.

State and Defense department officials confessed that the leaks were regrettable and embarrassing, but strongly denied the revelation of any wrongdoing.  Halting and defiant on the matter, their Yemeni counterparts, among them Foreign Minister Abdul Kareem al-Iryani, assured the media that the documents were more harmful to the United States than to Yemen.

Still, prominent news outlets in America maintain that State Department spokesman PJ Crowley lied about US military aid to the conflict against Houthi rebels and in the airstrikes, telling reporters last December that America had no military involvement in the country.

And this is only after 22 documents on Yemen have been released; Wikileaks founder Julian Assange confirmed that over 1500 documents on Yemen, from the embassy in Sana’a and from US embassies around the world, are yet to be disclosed.

As if to provide a convenient bookend to a year of controversy, President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan admitted last week a “strong frustration” by Americans with Yemeni officials, but in the context of “healthy tension.”

Yet he strongly suggested that US and foreign intervention into Yemen’s affairs would continue:

“Now, no nation could address this range of challenges alone, and Yemen is no different; it needs partners, it needs assistance, and it needs to know that the international community won’t stand idly by as Yemen falls victim to al-Qaeda’s murderous agenda.”

This commitment likely means the coming years will witness yet more arm-twisting and accusations between the two countries.