Why Obama isn't pushing for Yemen president to go: Al Qaeda
Obama wants Libya's Qaddafi out, and he pushed hard for Egypt's Mubarak to exit. Not so Yemen's Saleh, president for 33 years. The difference: US concern about Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.
President Obama has come down on the side of protesting populations more or less quickly as uprisings have mushroomed from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. But Mr. Obama has refrained from joining Yemeni protesters and one-time government loyalists in calls for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. The reason can be largely attributed to an acronym: AQAP.
That is the abbreviation for Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, the Al Qaeda offshoot that has directly targeted US soil ‚Äď remember the Christmas Day bomber of 2009 and last year‚Äôs package bombs destined for the US ‚Äď and that makes stability or chaos in Yemen a US national security interest.
‚ÄúThe places to be worried about are the north and into the east of the country, places that are fairly ideal for people who wish us ill to congregate,‚ÄĚ says Charles Dunbar, a former US ambassador to Yemen who now teaches international relations at Boston University.
Officials and foreign policy experts continue to debate the existence of any vital national security interests in the Libyan conflict, but American interests in Yemen appear to be more clear-cut.
‚ÄúWe are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen,‚ÄĚ Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a visit to Russia Tuesday. Noting that the US considers Al Qaeda‚Äôs branch in Yemen to be perhaps the most dangerous for the US, he added that ‚Äúinstability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is my primary concern about the situation.‚ÄĚ
The pace at which Yemeni military officers and government officials are abandoning President Saleh has quickened since Friday's bloody crackdown on protesters. Some prominent Yemeni journalists in the capital of Sanaa are predicting Mr. Saleh‚Äôs imminent downfall, despite the president‚Äôs recent offer to shorten his tenure, which otherwise is to last until 2013.
Earlier, Saleh announced he would not seek reelection and would not seek to have his son replace him, in a bid to quell mounting protests.
France, which has spearheaded international action against Libya‚Äôs Muammar Qaddafi, became the first world power to call for Saleh‚Äôs resignation in the aftermath of the government‚Äôs violent put-down of Friday‚Äôs street protests in Sanaa. On Monday, French Foreign Minister Alain Jupp√© said, ‚ÄúWe estimate today that the departure of President Saleh is unavoidable.‚ÄĚ
But concerns that instability in Yemen could be a boon to Al Qaeda's freedom of action there are very likely behind Obama‚Äôs reluctance to abandon Saleh, say experts such as Boston University‚Äôs Mr. Dunbar.
Dunbar notes that Obama‚Äôs senior counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, called Sanaa Sunday and ‚Äúread Saleh the riot act‚ÄĚ about Friday‚Äôs violent repression. On the other hand, he suspects the US is still clinging to Saleh though many Yemenis have long sought an end to his 33-year reign. ‚ÄúI can imagine that the [CIA], powerfully represented by [Director Leon] Panetta, could be saying, ‚ÄėLeave him alone, he‚Äôs all we‚Äôve got,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ he adds.
Saleh‚Äôs rise to becoming Washington‚Äôs ‚Äúally in the war on terror‚ÄĚ suggests how things have changed since Dunbar was ambassador in Sanaa in 1988-91, he says. Saleh approved US missile attacks on AQAP targets and acted to facilitate the American targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born Yemeni cleric the CIA is out to kill or capture.
The US is spending millions of dollars to train and equip new Yemeni counterterrorism forces.
But the millions of dollars in US aid ‚Äď or Obama‚Äôs eventual abandoning of the Yemeni president ‚Äď may not in the end play a decisive role in Saleh‚Äôs fate.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt see how we‚Äôre going to be able to do very much,‚ÄĚ Dunbar says. ‚ÄúWhen it comes down to it, we don‚Äôt have a lot of influence over this problem.‚ÄĚ