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.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
A dismissed Republican Guard officer gestures to anti-government protesters as he joins their rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh outside Sanaa University Tuesday. Unrelenting anti-government protests and fresh defections among the ruling elite added to the pressure on Saleh to step down after 32 years in power.

With Yemen looking like it could be the Middle East’s next domino, the United States faces one of the bigger challenges of the region’s ongoing revolution.

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 – remember the Christmas Day bomber of 2009 and last year’s package bombs destined for the US – and that makes stability or chaos in Yemen a US national security interest.

“The 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,” 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.

“We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a visit to Russia Tuesday. Noting that the US considers Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen to be perhaps the most dangerous for the US, he added that “instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is my primary concern about the situation.”

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’s imminent downfall, despite the president’s 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’s Muammar Qaddafi, became the first world power to call for Saleh’s resignation in the aftermath of the government’s violent put-down of Friday’s street protests in Sanaa. On Monday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said, “We estimate today that the departure of President Saleh is unavoidable.”

But concerns that instability in Yemen could be a boon to Al Qaeda's freedom of action there are very likely behind Obama’s reluctance to abandon Saleh, say experts such as Boston University’s Mr. Dunbar.

Dunbar notes that Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, called Sanaa Sunday and “read Saleh the riot act” about Friday’s 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. “I can imagine that the [CIA], powerfully represented by [Director Leon] Panetta, could be saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s all we’ve got,’ ” he adds.

Saleh’s rise to becoming Washington’s “ally in the war on terror” 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 – or Obama’s eventual abandoning of the Yemeni president – may not in the end play a decisive role in Saleh’s fate.

“I don’t see how we’re going to be able to do very much,” Dunbar says. “When it comes down to it, we don’t have a lot of influence over this problem.”

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