As Yemeni President Returns, U.S. Misses An Opportunity

After an unexpected return to Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has once again announced early presidential and parliamentary elections, reaffirming his commitment to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered power transition plan and authorizing his vice-president to sign it.

Nothing in Saleh’s past record gives reason to believe this new announcement. On multiple occasions this past spring, Saleh promised to sign the same GCC deal only to back out at the last second. He often delayed by debating in what capacity he or opposition officials should sign or engaging in other senseless officiousness regarding signatures. That Saleh is designating someone other than himself as the authoritative signatory of the plan only leads one to expect more of the same games.

However, at this point, few still take Saleh’s overtures at elections seriously. What is most worrying is that the Associated Press reported Saleh’s return to Yemen on Friday took the United States by surprise. Many had assumed that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were leaning on him to step down and that he would be allowed to leave Saudi only with the permission of these two countries and an understanding regarding power transition.

It is unlikely that Saleh could have left Riyadh without Saudi approval or at least advance knowledge. That Saudi officials did not consult or even inform their American counterparts about Saleh’s plans to return reflects poorly on the American decision early this spring to entrust Saudi Arabia with the responsibility of solving the Yemen crisis through the GCC.

By delegating the Yemen issue to Saudi Arabia, a country that has plenty of its own interests in the country and a history of meddling with its domestic politics, the U.S. signaled its inability or unwillingness to take the lead in addressing the crisis. Saleh’s ominous surprise return, preceded by the deaths of over 100 people in the previous week, proves that believing the Saudis’ could manage the issue any better was misguided.

About the only “positive” the U.S. can take from developments in Yemen during recent months was White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan’s statement in September that “counter-terrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure.” This looks positive in the short-term, but America’s security interests would be best served in the long-run not simply by good counter-terror cooperation, but also by greater political stability.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have lost control of the situation, if they ever had it in the first place, by losing their leverage on a medically-captive Saleh. A solution must now run through the Yemeni president unfettered by direct outside pressure. The ball is in Saleh’s court, and that is a dangerous place for it to be. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons