Obama and the “right side of history” in Yemen

M.K. Bhadrakumar April 25, 2015 10:51 AM (UTC+8)
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The United States’ involvement in the conflict in Yemen is generally understood in terms of two factors – spectre of al-Qaeda exploiting the civil war conditions to its advantage, and, secondly, perceived need (viewed through the prism of Saudi-Iranian rivalry) to balance the growing comfort level in the U.S.’s engagement of Iran with the need to reassure the Sunni Arab allies.

However, the fundamental issue here is something else, namely, the Barack Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to make a clean break with the “counterrevolutionary” stance it throughout adopted by the U.S. with regard to the advent of the Arab Spring in Yemen in 2011. A creative future role worthy of a world leader will not be possible unless and until the U.S. begins to distance itself openly, unambiguously from the dubious role Washington played in stymying what was a genuinely democratic people’s revolution in Yemen four years ago.

Of course, thanks to Russia’s unrepentant hostility to the Arab Spring and anything that smacked of popular upsurge, the U.S. was splendidly successful in getting the fig-leaf of the United Nations Security Council to legitimize its role in the perpetuation of authoritarian rule in Yemen.

But the primary fault nonetheless lies with the Barack Obama administration in backstabbing the popular revolution — which was, ironically, based on a remarkable “Gandhian” path of non-violence – and preventing the birth of a new era of democratic rule in Yemen.

A splendid analysis, here, by Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, recounts the dubious role played by the U.S. in 2011 and the period since then in Yemen, and the moral and political responsibility for the present conflict that the Obama administration simply cannot disown, as Yemen hurtles toward anarchy.

Russia’s reactionary role with regard to democratic revolutions in the Middle East is understandable and is consistent with its own interests and it even rests on a principle that autocrats cannot be overthrown with the help of America. But the Obama administration faces an entirely different yardstick insofar as it had professed something entirely to the contrary and claimed to be standing on the “right side of history” when the Arab Spring appeared in Tunis around just ahead of its advent in Yemen.

Curiously, the role played by the U.S. was almost exactly opposite to its stance when the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. (This comparison eluded the attention of Prof. Zunes.) Of course, in Egypt, too, the revolution eventually got aborted and the U.S. has since acquiesced with the return of autocracy and repression against popular upsurge.

The big question is, given such a shameful past, what is going to be the U.S.’s future role in Yemen now that the search for a political solution is about to commence? All that is clear is that it is unrealistic to expect a return to power by the U.S.-Saudi proxy Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi as president, as if nothing happened in these months since the Houthi march to power began.

One utterly fascinating aspect of Prof. Zunes’ analysis is that it is possible to discuss and understand the crisis in Yemen without bringing in Iran. Indeed, the U.S. too has not been comfortable with the Saudi idea of caricaturing the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. The point is, what has happened in the recent months is an inevitable re-alignment of forces within Yemen brining the Houthis and the sections of reactionary Old Guard together, whereas, the western narrative today is that it is all about the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Prof. Zones passionately underscores that the U.S.’ medium and long term interests in Yemen – and, indeed, that country’s stability and security too – will be best served if the Obama administration takes a bold stance at the negotiating table in the weeks ahead to ensure that whatever interim arrangement takes shape, there will be space for the country’s non-violent pro-democracy forces to surge and (re)assume their progressive role as the vanguard of reform and change, of democratization.

Conceivably, Obama will run into headwinds here facing an array of reactionary players resenting a democratization process to take hold in Yemen through UN intervention – Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states and Russia in particular – but what is the alternative? There is no evidence that much thinking is taking place in Washington. The accent is almost entirely on fire-fighting, which is important, but then, al-Qaeda is not really the problem in Yemen; it is a manifestation of the deep crisis stemming from decades of relentless despotic rule.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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