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Afrah Nasser

Obama's abysmal track record in Yemen

Rescue workers in Sanaa search for victims among the rubble of an airstrike [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 November, 2016

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Comment: Obama's foreign policy in Yemen was in many ways an extension of Bush's, but with even more devastating consequences, writes Afrah Nasser

As US President-elect Donald J. Trump's win takes over the news, current US President Barack Obama's destructive legacy in Yemen must not go unnoticed.

The Obama administration's foreign policy toward Yemen has been damaging and has largely contributed to the ongoing frenzied blood spill in the country. His policies inflicted devastating chaos on many levels in Yemen, for which the country is paying a heavy price.

In fact, Obama's record in Yemen is so dismal it even trumps his predecessor, Bush.  

A failing 'War on Terror'

When Obama took office in 2009, analysts were hopeful that a realist American president would have a better vision for considering Yemen's local context, and fixing Bush's myriad failures in the global "War on Terror" in Yemen.

Bush's doctrine was characterised by his blind idealism in promoting democracy and security, and a dismissal of efforts to address the main drivers of violent extremism in Yemen. His pragmatic alliance with ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his corrupt regime was a major failure in US policy in Yemen.

While Yemen was sliding down the ranks of the UN's Human Development Index, Saleh exploited that alliance to serve his own military interest, in the name of fighting terrorism.

In 2001, Bush's administration presented Saleh with an aid package worth up to $400 million, as part of US counter-terrorism operations, without investigating how Saleh's rule contributed to insurgents in Yemen. Bush's policies failed to comprehend Saleh's deceit in using the anti-terrorism card over advancing the social and economic growth of the country.

Bush's doctrine was characterised by his blind idealism in promoting democracy and security

Obama's foreign policy in Yemen was in many ways an extension of Bush's. Despite his realism, it would have even more devastating consequences. Not only did Obama's approach pursue Bush's anti-terrorism strategy, he also made sure to expand the militarisation strategy.

Obama's policy - like Bush's - perceived Yemen as a land of terrorism, neglecting warning calls from the country's civil society and grassroots organisations that Yemen was increasingly becoming a land of poverty, illiteracy and poor governance. This, they warned, represented the perfect conditions for terrorist groups to thrive and recruit.

Nonetheless, Obama too, failed to comprehend Saleh's deceit and manipulation through the language of anti-terrorism.

Consequently, under Obama, the US doubled its security support to Yemen, to more than $150 million in 2010, including a proposed $45 million for equipping and training Yemeni special anti-terrorism forces. In spite of that, Obama's approach to Saleh's "War on Terror" was ineffective, with no real gains; it simply allowed Saleh to milk more military aid for no great significant purpose. Recent global terrorist attacks with links to Yemen are just few examples to demonstrate that.

Worse than Bush

Part of Obama's extension of Bush's policy was the stepped up drone strikes campaign in Yemen. Under Obama, there has been a hike in drone strikes in Yemen and other countries, at nearly nine times more than the level authorised by Bush.

These drone strikes have killed more civilians than combatants - leading to growing anti-American sentiment. While clearly such a military strategy has become counter-productive, Obama's creativity reached its peak with his secret "kill-list" which included names in Yemen. Those in the worst hit areas understand that the real "terrorism" is carried out by US military jets that have been colonising Yemen's skies and terrorising innocent civilians. 

The 2011 uprising and Obama

When the 2011 uprising broke out, Obama's US policy in Yemen faced a crisis: How would the US handle losing a close ally in the War on Terror, in Saleh? It was time for Obama's realism to find new priorities in US policy in Yemen.

In parallel to his cautious endorsement of the protests, he was obsessed with silencing critical reporting of the flaws in his counter-terrorism drone strikes in Yemen. He intervened to keep a Yemeni journalist in jail, who revealed the drone strike crimes against women and children. This has exposed Obama's hypocrisy in supporting press freedom around the globe, but not in Yemen.

Not only did Obama's approach pursue Bush's anti-terrorism strategy, he also made sure to expand the militarisation strategy

As the protests grew, the Obama administration had another setback in Yemen. During the 2011 uprising, Obama's foreign policy in Yemen was ill-made and was key in shaping an ill-formed model for a failing political transition.

He endorsed a power-transfer deal to Saleh, made by the Gulf Cooperation Council that guaranteed impunity to a dictatorship. This was a recipe for disaster, confirmed by the bloodbath we see in Yemen today. Nonetheless, the administration attempted to boast about their success in forging the "Yemen-model" of US counter-terrorism policy.

Obama at war in Yemen 

Not long after the myth of the Yemen-model, the war broke out, pointing to the failures of US policy in Yemen. Today, Obama must be held responsible for leading the country to where it is today. He has contributed to the reckless expansion and militarisation of Saleh's forces, and the co-enabling of killing through its support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Despite the calls of human rights groups to independently investigate war crimes committed in Yemen, Obama has continued to authorise arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The most outrageous truth, though, is that under Obama US-made and internationally banned cluster bombs were used by US ally, Saudi Arabia, in Yemen against civilian areas.

And yet, Obama has failed to even rhetorically address this. As remnants of bombs dropped above Yemenis' heads read made by the US, Yemenis now more than ever, believe Saudi Arabia's war is an American one, too. The slaughter of Yemeni civilians with cluster bombs might well be Obama's bloodiest legacy in Yemen.

Obama's dismal failure in Yemen reflects the failure of a realist assessment of national interests. Would Trump provide a glimmer of hope in Yemen? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, Yemenis see Obama as worse than any other American president.



Afrah Nasser is a multi-award winning Yemeni freelance writer and blogger focusing on human rights violations, based in Sweden since May 2011. She blogs at: afrahnasser.blogspost.com

Follow her on Twitter: @Afrahnasser


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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