Yemen Proves Tough Test for New Middle East Strategy

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced Thursday plans to reform Yemen’s constitution and to shift to a parliamentary system by the end of 2011. What on the surface looks like a concession to the protesters calling for the end of his regime may actually be a calculated measure meant to shore up U.S. support for his embattled government.

A March 5th article in the Wall Street Journal set out what appears to be Obama’s new strategy for managing unrest in the Arab world: maintain support for autocratic allies who are willing to reform. Saleh’s concessions may be aimed squarely at conforming to this new position.

Viewed in this light, the announcement serves two purposes. First, it demonstrates to the U.S. that Saleh is willing to enact reforms and is thus deserving of America’s continued support. As if on cue, U.S. counterterrorism advisor John Brennan on Friday called Saleh to voice his approval of the announcement and urge all members of the opposition to join in Saleh’s call for dialogue.

Second, Saleh might be attempting to lay responsibility for the continuing unrest back on the anti-government protesters. The opposition has already rejected this latest offer of reform, a response Saleh anticipated even as he made the announcement. It appears that by offering concessions which he knew would be rejected, Saleh is hoping to paint the opposition as obstructionist and thus less deserving of international sympathy.

If supporting autocrats who are willing to reform is indeed President Obama’s new strategy in the Middle East, Yemen is already proving to be a tough early test of this strategy’s viability. Just one day after the U.S. endorsement of Saleh’s new proposals for reform, state security forces used live fire in the most violent engagement to date at Sana’a University’s new campus, center of the anti-government demonstrations.

This puts the United States in a tight spot. Backing Saleh will become increasingly difficult as violence escalates. Gregory Johnson, a well-regarded Yemen analyst working at Princeton University, now considers Saleh’s days numbered and believes that continued public support for dialogue, and therefore Saleh, risks alienating the opposition and limiting America's ability to influence the next government.

Never mind that those demonstrating against Saleh’s government have consistently rejected calls for dialogue, not least because Saleh has refused any plan calling for his resignation prior to the 2013 termination of his term. Regardless, the United States has maintained its support for dialogue, even after the violence of March 12.

America's clear security interests in Yemen (Brennan considers the Yemen-headquartered Al-Qaeda (AQ) in the Arabian Peninsua as one of AQ’s “most active operational nodes”) arguably make Saleh America’s most strategically important autocratic ally. But Obama’s new strategy faces its toughest test as the Saleh regime looks increasingly fragile and increasingly willing to turn to violence. Obama's administration may realize all too late the value of maintaining flexibility in support of its ally in Yemen.

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