Michael Brenner Headshot

Yemen: The Bidding Begins

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YEMEN PROTESTERS
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Anything associated with the so-called 'war on terror' comes in a dramatic frame. Every reference, whatever its intrinsic significance, evokes 9/11 imagery. Threats of any magnitude are exaggerated correspondingly. So it is with Yemen. The prevailing attitude and imagery is that of President Saleh as a staunch ally of the United States in the frontlines of combat with a mortal enemy of America. That danger is personified by American born Imam Anwar al-Awlaki. What we know definitely about him is that he preaches violent jihad against the United States; is connected with al-Qaidi in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); may have been in communication with the mentally unbalanced Nidal Malik Hasan who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood; and that he had involvement with the amateurish "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

As for Mr. Saleh, his contribution to the nation's security has been to give permission for the surreptitious launching of cruise missiles that were aimed at and missed Mr. Awlaki. He also permits a handful of CIA operatives and Special Forces to prowl the Yemen outback in undefined missions against AQAP. AQAP is a regional outfit that has the House of Saud and related regimes in their sights. Yemeni security forces collaborate in their own way on an irregular basis as convenient. These activities are but one segment of the intricate pattern of Yemeni politics woven by dozens of tribal, sectarian and doctrinal actors. Mr. Saleh, in exchange for his services, receives abundant amounts of financial assistance -- some small portion of which reaches his subjects. In his long and checkered past, he had similar arrangements during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then with us. At the moment, Mr. Saleh is on the point of being toppled by forces unconnected to AQAP.

Now that he is on the way out, Washington worries that the ensuing unstable conditions may be to AQAP's advantage. We have no candidate of our own in a wide open contest for the next Yemini strongman. So we revert to our rote formula. Earlier, we backed Mr. Saleh in the desperate hope that he could hang on -- against all odds. That stance has had the inescapable effect of feeding anti-American sentiment in the country and exacerbating our efforts to exercise some measure of influence in the future. Second, with Mr Saleh wounded and hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, we revert to our standard fall-back position. That is to place our hopes on his vice president, a cipher named Abd al Rab Mansur al Hadi, in order to conserve the old regime's outlook on matters that interest us. This is what we did in Egypt in backing Interior Minister Mr. Suleiman (who was anything but a cipher) as Mubarak's successor. That ploy failed. Mr. Hadi is being promoted as the ideal person to stitch up the torn quilt of Yemeni politics. The grounds for reaching that conclusion are non-existent other than the wishful thinking of the Obama people that he is a pliable personality who'd be congenial to playing footsie with us for a small remuneration. The usual 'highly placed anonymous sources' in Washington already are passing the word that Mr. Hadi in fact has latent statesman-like qualities previously invisible.

So the great game that we call the 'war on terror' goes on -- and on.