Rioters breached the outer layer of security at the American Embassy in Yemen on Thursday, but don’t be misled into thinking this was a protest about an anti-Islam film trolling for trouble. The film may have been a catalyst, but it was not the source of the anger directed at the United States. Rather, the film served as cover for those already predisposed toward anti-American violence.
First, the copy-cat protest likely capitalized on the swell of negative American press following a recent airstrike that reportedly missed its target, instead striking a car full of civilians, including women and children, killing up to 14.
While those Yemenis on the receiving end of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) territorial ambitions have at times pragmatically welcomed the strikes that drove AQAP and its Taliban-style insurgent counterpart Ansar al Sharia out of their towns, the strikes that occasionally miss and kill civilians prove incredibly damaging for the United States’ image.
Further, a perception now persists among some Yemenis that U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein is the "real" governor of Yemen. In what may be a backfiring of public diplomacy strategy, the ambassador’s persistent public media presence, contrasted with Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s conspicuous public absence and preference to rely on spokesmen, may only be reinforcing this viewpoint.
American diplomats also played a leading role in brokering the transition plan that saw former president Ali Abdullah Saleh abdicate power. The plan has come under criticism from both sides. Protests continue against a part of the plan which grants immunity to former President Saleh.
On the flip side, the plan calls for the purging of Saleh’s relatives from leadership positions in the armed forces. One reporter covering the riots noted that members of a security force under the command of one of Saleh’s nephews allowed the rioting mob to pass through a security cordon into the embassy grounds.
Americans can take some solace in that the hundreds participating in the violent riots stand in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands that peacefully demonstrated throughout most of 2011. But if any conclusion can be drawn from Thursday’s events, it is that criticism of the United States’ policies in Yemen will eventually bubble to the surface in blunt ways.
While the U.S. remains committed to helping Yemen achieve political and economic stability, as we’ve learned in Afghanistan, it is hard to win hearts and minds while conducting military operations. It only takes one ill-placed missile to negate millions of dollars in aid.
While we must hope that Thursday’s riot does not mark a turning point away from Yemen’s dedication to peaceful protest, more violent outbursts can be expected as the U.S. attempts to balance a hot war against Al-Qaeda with the exercise of soft power in an extremely complex country.