Last September, during a speech outlining his plan to fight back the Islamic State, President Barack Obama told Americans to look at Yemen as a shining example of how U.S. counter-terrorism can triumph.
"This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," he said.
Now, some six months later, the Yemeni government has all but collapsed, with Houthi rebels forcing President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to allegedly flee the country by boat for Djibouti. On Wednesday night, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes on the Houthis, and Yemen seems poised to descend into a period of total chaos.
Still, during a panel discussion on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was unwilling to walk back the Obama administration's victorious language.
Co-host Mika Brzezinski led the charge, grilling Earnest about the crisis.
"Josh, I'll put you on the spot here," she began. "Is Yemen still a success story? Can you say that?"
"The measure of the U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government, that's a separate enterprise," Earnest responded after skirting the question a number of times. "The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of U.S. policy in Yemen is to make sure that Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the west and to attack the United States."
Though Earnest conceded that the White House would "prefer a situation where there is a stable government" in Yemen, he ultimately maintained that the U.S. is still able to gather intelligence within the country and launch successful strikes against extremists when necessary.
Chris Jansing, NBC News' White House correspondent, remained skeptical.
“How, when you have the embassy closed, the Americans have left, you have the parliament that has been dissolved, you have the president fleeing on a boat, maybe towards Djibouti, you have so many less possibilities for intelligence on the ground," she said. "How can you say that we are still in a counter-terror situation there?”
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