Yemen and the Libya Precedent

The Western powers' inaction on Yemen risks appearing hypocritical after they took such direct action in Libya

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Yemeni anti-government protester injured during clashes with security forces in Sanaa / Reuters

Marc Lynch, responding to today's violent crackdown on protesters in Yemen, writes:

It has been difficult to get anyone to pay attention to Yemen ... ever since President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been rushed to Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds from an apparent assassination attempt. Distracted by hot wars in Libya and Syria, the struggling transition in Egypt, and the diplomatic train wreck between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. and most of the region put Yemen on the back burner. Even though thousands of incredibly determined and resilient Yemenis continued to protest regularly, and analysts warned with increasing desperation that missing the opportunity to bring about a transition would be a disastrous mistake, the urgency faded away.  Indeed, Saleh's regime counted on that fading external urgency as part of its strategy of delay and distraction, hoping to outlast, confuse, divide, and where possible crush the protest movement.   Now, Yemenis are paying for that neglect in blood.

His solution? The U.S., the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the UN, and Yemen's own opposition (I'm assuming he means the latest iteration of the Joint Meeting Parties) need to push for President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immediate resignation.

The thing is, the GCC and Yemen's opposition movement have been pushing for this since April. President Obama has been calling for Saleh's resignation since May. And the UN has publicly condemned Saleh's regime's crackdown on protestors since March. So what could any of these group do now that is different from what they've been doing?

As he notes, part of why the world's attention is split is because of the war still ongoing in Libya. U.S. advocates for the intervention in Libya cited the principle of protecting people from being slaughtered by their own corrupt government. What makes Yemen different?

In the months since the war in Libya was launched under the strategically dubious guise of a Western "Responsibility to Protect" non-westerners from their own governments, I've struggled mightily to discern what principles actually govern when to intervene and when to simply advocate on behalf of victims. By all accounts, the great fear in Libya was that Qaddafi was going to commit an atrocity in Benghazi -- even though he hadn't yet, the fear of a mass killing was sufficient to carry the Responsibility to Protect advocates' message to European and American legislatures to approve an intervention on behalf of Libya's opposition.

Another reason commonly given for intervening in Libya was the rebel movement itself. The National Transition Council and its forebears were organized, they were geographically defined, and they were under seige by the Qaddafi regime. This made intervening on their behalf easy, so the thinking goes.

Yemen has all of these things. Its opposition isn't quite as simple -- the Joint Meeting Parties are not limited only to the south near Aden, and the Houthis in the North are a separate headache for everyone involved -- but it is far better organized and has been in existence (and with more bureaucratic structure) for far longer than Libya's still-nascent opposition. Yemen does not have the threat of imminent mass killing, but rather the present and recent history of several mass killings by the regime against protestors who are actually peaceful -- as compared to the Libyan protestors who had taken up arms against their government. By these definitions, Yemen should warrant some sort of intervention on behalf of the opposition.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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