2011-03-30 US Doesn't Intend to Shut Down "Cirque de Saleh" Anytime Soon

ImageCables recently posted by the Spanish news organization El Pais provide more details on the manic and overbearing Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The cables appear just as Saleh seems to be closer to transferring control of Yemen to another leader, who can diffuse the growing revolt against his regime and as The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, one American journalist who has not shied away from using the WikiLeaks cables to inform his work, publishes a major story on what is at stake for the US in Yemen.

Over the weekend, widespread rumors suggested Saleh would be stepping down. But, by Sunday, March 27, Saleh’s zealous hold on power only tightened in the face of this notion that he would no longer be ruling Yemen. On the American Sunday morning talk show “Meet the Press,” US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said his fall or replacement by a weaker leader would be “a real problem” for US counterterrorism operations, pretty much solidifying the fact that Saleh would not be leaving yet.

A cable from August 31, 2009, illuminates a leader, who has grown increasingly unstable in recent years. One Member of Parliament explains to then-US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche how the country has serious problems but when he talks about them, Saleh gets angry and tells him to go.

The MP echoes the concerns of many of Saleh’s former confidants and advisors and descirbes how Saleh has over the past fifteen years increasingly shut people like him out and chosen to rely on close family members and himself when making important decisions. The nepotism occurs without challenge because Parliament, the judicial system and all of the Ministries report directly to Saleh. This, as the MP has argued, totally subjugates the Parliament to the Saleh regime.

Also, the MP asserts one third of those in Parliament are uneducated and are afraid to lose their “privileges.” He adds that Saleh is bothered by the fact that he has lost popularity among the general Yemeni population and tells Seche that he plans to launch an “action group” to “compel” the regime to implement reforms. He hopes to conduct a “massive citizen education campaign” that would inform Yemenis about their rights in a democratic system and eventually mobilize the population to “agitate for change through public demonstrations.”

A second cable from October 6, 2009, compares the president’s personal hospital to the oldest hospital in the country in Aden. The 64-year-old Republican Aden Hospital is a 300-bed facility in a “dilapidated state” that has one single x-ray machine that is a “government symbol of neglect,” even by Yemen’s “low public health standards.” Seche describes the hallways and operating rooms as something that evoke “a sci-fi writer’s post-apocalyptic vision.”

It was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 and last renovated in 1985. Renovations that were meant to plug holes in the ceiling to keep out rats and cockroaches were made but have failed to “keep the pests out.” The hospital has to send patients to Sanaa for laboratory tests and anything beyond basic surgical procedures. The Ministry of Health ignores a wish list of easily procurable that includes bedpans and stethoscopes.

Saleh’s personal hospital, the Sanaa Defense Compound, is a different story entirely. The Yemen government-financed hospital, which was completed in May 2009, has sixteen beds and cost $8 million USD, is headed by Dr. Hisham al-Zubairi, Saleh's personal physician. It is staffed with German and Indian doctors and has “state-of-the-art orthopedic, ear, nose and throat (ENT), and 3-D medical imagery technology.”

Someone whose name is redacted once convinced Saleh to open the hospital to top military commanders in critical condition. But, normally, the nurses and doctors can be seen on the three floors smiling and looking bored.

Money that has gone toward fighting the Houthis in the Saada war could easily be used to better fund hospitals like the Aden hospital but Saleh callously disregards the needs of his people.

ImageIn a cable from September 15, 2009, released months ago (and recently posted on El Pais with the aforementioned cables), Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan meets with Saleh, who pledges “unfettered access to Yemen’s national territory for counterterrorism operations.” Brennan raises the issue of economic reform and corruption and delivers a letter from President Obama that contains a 10-point plan outlining necessary economic reforms but has no details on when goals in the plan must be implemented. Fascinatingly, when Brennan expresses concern that economic and other assistance might be diverted through corrupt officials for other purposes, Saleh proposes a solution.

Responding to Brennan's concerns that economic and other assistance might be diverted through corrupt officials to other purposes, Saleh urged the U.S. to donate supplies and hardware rather than liquid funds in order to curb corruption's reach. Saleh also told US officials that they could have full access to financial records to ensure proper usage of donor funding. (COMMENT. Saleh's preference for infrastructure and equipment over cash displays a lack of confidence in his own regime's ability to handle liquid assets and hardly provides a viable solution for stemming the curb of corruption in the long run. END COMMENT.)

During the meeting, Saleh is immensely frustrated with the fact that the US government will not support his war against the Houthis in northern Yemen. He says the war that is being launched is “a war on behalf of the US…the Houthis are your enemies too.” Seche, however, notes the Houthis have not attacked US interests or personnel in the “six wars” that have taken place between Saleh’s regime and the Houthis since 2004. Saleh complains Yemen government forces are “suffering a lot of casualties and loss of material” and renews his requests for armored personnel vehicles, aircraft and medical evacuation vehicles telling Brennan, “We need deeds, not only words.” To which Brennan further emphasizes that the US is “prohibited by law from providing military support” to the Yemen government against the Houthis since the US government “considers the group a domestic insurgency.” [Note: The US can always find a way around legal restrictions so it’s more likely the Pentagon just doesn’t want to be part of a Saleh’s war.]

Saleh continues to persistently push Brennan for support:

Restating claims of Iranian support to the Houthi movement, ROYG officials present said they had provided files supporting an Iranian-Houthi connection to USG officials and would provide more if necessary. (NOTE. The Ambassador acknowledged receiving a file that was reviewed here and in Washington; however, no conclusive evidence of an Iranian-Houthi link has been made from these or other records. Brennan said that he would request a fresh scrub of all available intelligence to see if it turned up any evidence of Iranian involvement. END NOTE.) Saleh said, "Iran is trying to settle old scores against the U.S. by ruining relations between Yemen and GCC countries and the U.S." He also made a tangential reference to Hezbollah, claiming the organization's influence in the region also rendered the ROYG-Houthi war a fight on behalf of the U.S. Referencing the high poverty rate and illicit arms flows into both Yemen and Somalia, Saleh concluded by saying, "If you don't help, this country will become worse than Somalia."

Scahill’s new article titled, “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen,” expertly outlines Saleh’s relationship with the US, how he is being backed up and supported even as an uprising is working to topple his regime and how Saleh came to power.

Image Saleh, known in Yemen as The Boss, became the country’s leader in 1990 following the unification of the north, which he had ruled since the 1970s, and the south, which had been run by a Marxist government based in Aden. Saleh is a survivor who has deftly navigated his way through the cold war, deep tribal divisions and the “global war on terror.” Under the Obama administration, the United States committed increased military funding for his regime. Though he was known as a double-dealer, Saleh was tacitly viewed as Washington’s man on the Arabian Peninsula.

Scahill quotes an individual who recently left his job as a Yemen analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency:

Without a guarantee that a successor government will grant US forces such access, peaceful protesters being gunned down will not be the top priority. “The feckless US response is highlighting how shortsighted our policy is there,” says Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project who recently left the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he was a Yemen analyst. “We meekly consent to Saleh’s brutality out of a misguided fear that our counterterror programs will be cut off, apparently not realizing that, in doing so, we are practically guaranteeing the next government will threaten those very programs.”

The entire article is a must read but this particular paragraph shows how the US has become a slave to Saleh’s wiley authority. It demonstrates what the US (especially the Pentagon) fears most is change because change introduces new variables into the equation and forces adjustments in policy and operations. Someone like Saleh who has been around for a long time can be made to work for the US. Trade deals, economic assistance and military aid can be used to win someone like Saleh over. And, that is why the US has held fast to a policy of supporting strongmen in the Middle East, even when its diplomats knew full well domestic conditions were ripe for popular revolution.

Saleh may indeed be on his way out. He may transfer power and become a ceremonial leader until elections later this year. If he does leave power, the US will have, by then, found a way to ensure that its counterterrorism operations can continue under the next regime and they will have selected a few presidential candidates they think they can support. But, really, Saleh doesn’t have to go. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis can continue to demonstrate and as long as Saleh has the US backing him up Saleh can insulate himself, further lose touch with reality and continue to lead his regime. Saleh can buy off members of Parliament. The people will soon find out their protests are exacerbating the unjust economic conditions and instability is making it impossible for necessary reform to take place.

Saleh can wait demonstrators out because he, unlike Libyan Leader Muammar el-Gaddafi, plays an integral role in the "global war on terror." Plus, the US isn’t worried a massacre will occur in Yemen. Saleh’s been annihilating Houthis for years and the US has been killing Yemeni civilians in attacks against individuals presumed to be part of Al Qaeda.

*Here is a Nation Conversation with Scahill and Nation editor Betsy Reed on the unrest in Yemen:

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