The United States has little capacity to force political change in Yemen. But it is perceived with some justification as only caring about Yemen because of terrorism and not about Yemenis. Symbolism counts in such situations, and the Obama administration can break out of the dynamic that casts America in a negative light with the Yemeni people. It is time for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Agency for International Development Administrator Raj Shah to go to Yemen and take on a greater public role in building support for Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as the leader of a political transition and boosting awareness of American support for the Yemeni people.
The forced departure of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—who has ruled the country for more than 30 years—to Saudi Arabia to receive urgent medical care for severe wounds suffered in an assassination attempt has not led to an accelerated power transition as some had hoped (including us). The tent cities protesters erected in the capital Sana’a are now largely empty, and at least some of the wind has gone out of the sails of the opposition movement. The stalemate is deepening the multiple ongoing crises facing Yemenis, only one of which is the reported advances of the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan flew to Saudi Arabia this past weekend to meet with President Saleh and urge him to step down and transfer power to Vice President Hadi. Unfortunately, Yemeni state television spun the meeting as a sign of the Obama administration’s commitment to stand behind the Saleh government. Add that to the recent news that the United States is increasing its use of drones to strike AQAP and it’s no wonder that the Yemeni opposition and broader public are feeling somewhat abandoned by the Obama administration.
The United States can do little to move the political process along. But the symbolic weight of U.S. actions now can yield a carryover effect beyond whatever power transition occurs in Yemen. Brennan, who met repeatedly with Saleh in the past, was correct to go to Riyadh and meet with him directly as he recovers. But the image of the top U.S. counterterrorism official meeting with the Yemeni president is what lingers in the minds of Yemenis when terrorism ranks far down their list of urgent priorities in a country facing economic and humanitarian crises that predate the current political turmoil.
Shortly after President Saleh was wounded, we called on the Obama administration to move beyond counterterrorism as the frame of U.S.-Yemen relations. To the administration’s credit, the United States is providing some fresh water and $10 million in food aid to the Yemeni people. It’s difficult to broaden the frame, however, as long as Brennan is the main interlocutor between the two countries and U.S. policy in Yemen is perceived to be all about drone strikes on terrorists.
That’s why a visit by Secretary Clinton to Yemen to meet with Vice President Hadi and the recognized group of opposition leaders negotiating with the government would be impossible to spin as anything but an American effort to boost Hadi and lend support to the push for a transition away from the Saleh family regime.
Though Vice President Hadi has not formally assumed the powers of the presidency, he is the acting head of state while President Saleh recovers from his injuries in Riyadh. Unlike President Saleh, however, Hadi enjoys a degree of legitimacy among the various opposition forces and is seen as a conciliatory figure who can promote a peaceful political transition in Yemen. In fact, the opposition in Yemen openly supports Hadi as the transition’s leader.
Still, Hadi remained reluctant to enter into talks with parliamentary and tribal opposition leaders in part because of frequent claims that President Saleh would be returning to Yemen any day now, but more importantly because President Saleh’s sons and nephews still maintain control over Yemen’s security and oppose any transition.
But it is now unlikely that President Saleh will return to Yemen anytime soon. He recorded last week his first televised speech since he was wounded, and it was clear that his injuries were far more severe than were reported—though recent photos from his meeting with Brennan showed him in slightly better condition. Nevertheless, now is the time to solidify Hadi’s position as the singular leader of Yemen, giving him the space to force through the transition plan and get the process going to end President Saleh’s more-than-30-year reign.
A visit by the top American diplomat would strengthen Hadi and rectify misconceptions about who the United States supports. Soon after Hosni Mubarak resigned amidst popular protests, Secretary Clinton visited Egypt to convey support for the newly emerging democracy in the highest-level visit by the United States since protests in Cairo began. This visit gave legitimacy to U.S. calls for support of the protesters. A similar symbolic act in Yemen will likely have equally positive effects.
The United States must also do a better job convincing Yemenis that our actions in Yemen are designed to help them and not simply protect our own interests. The political crisis has put one of the most water-poor countries on the planet on the brink of disaster. Most Yemenis don’t have access to running water, fuel prices have increased by 900 percent, 7 million of Yemen’s 21 million citizens go hungry every day, and rolling blackouts have kept many of the country’s hospitals from properly functioning.
While the United States already provided $45 million in relief assistance this year, a vocal, public push by USAID head Raj Shah to mobilize the international community to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen can have a real impact on the lives of perhaps millions of Yemenis and go a long way to achieving all U.S. objectives in that country.
Security forces that were targeting AQAP were redeployed from the south to Sana’a to protect the Saleh family and regime since protesters became a threat to the regime in February. AQAP was thus given room to maneuver, and it capitalized on the opportunity by expanding activities in a number of key cities in southern Abyan province and exerting control over local populations. This is what prompted the uptick in American drone strikes trying to fill the void left by the departed Yemeni security forces. The problem is that drones are not a sustainable way to check AQAP’s advances—only a stable government that is capable of responding to the needs of its people can accomplish that.
The world saw last Friday the impact U.S. officials can have when U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford visited Hama, the city at the heart of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which bolstered the protest movement in the face of a government crackdown. Sending Hillary Clinton and Raj Shah to Sana’a could be a way to break the deadlock and push the various factions in Yemen toward the political settlement that is needed so that the next Yemeni government can tackle the multiple serious challenges it faces.
Ken Gude is the Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program, Ken Sofer is the Special Assistant, and Aaron Gurley is an intern at American Progress.