Yemen and the Libya Precedent

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

foust sep19 p2.jpg
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.

Even the presence of Islamists or al-Qaeda isn't a good reason not to intervene. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is indeed a huge problem, but one of the Libyan opposition movement's biggest blocs is made up of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, (LIFG) a terrorist organization banned after the September 11th attacks. The CIA even renditioned LIFG's senior commander, Abu Abdullah Sadiq, from Malaysia to Qaddafi's Libya because of his ties to al-Qaeda. And, during the worst years of the Iraq war, Libya is widely believed to have spawned hundreds of insurgents, many of them from the western part of the country where the rebel movement began, who fought against U.S. troops in Iraq. None of this stopped the U.S. from siding with Libya's rebel movement. In comparison, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, Yemen's primary Islamist leader in the opposition, is hardly worth mentioning -- sure he cited Osama bin Laden a few decades ago, but his Islamism hardly rises to the militancy the LIFG has expressed. And an opposition-ruled Yemen has every reason to oppose AQAP: it cuts against their reform agenda, especially on economics.

From almost every angle, I cannot see why those who demanded the world intervene to prevent an atrocity from happening in Libya are not doing the same on behalf of Yemen. Some say that Yemen is prohibitively complicated, but Yemen only seems more complex because we know more about it (as we learn more about Libya's society, its complexity and deep divisions -- especially between the Arabs and Africans -- become more apparent). Other argue that intervention in Libya had more international support, but there is broad international consensus that the Saleh regime needs to end. And the argument that the world had to stop an atrocity in Libya ring the most hollow of all: unlike in Libya, there are atrocities happening in Yemen right now, and they are by all accounts horrifying.

There are some very good reasons why the world should not intervene in Yemen. I share Marc Lynch's belief that the proper way to advocate on behalf of Saleh's victims is through legal measures, putting regime members on trial for crimes against humanity, as well as through political and economic isolation until the atrocities stop. The problem is, Libya let the cat out of the bag. We sent that message that if you scream loud enough, we will step in. And now, when we choose not to, we risk looking like hypocrites.