The unraveling of Yemen should be a wake-up call for Obama loyalists. Obama was elected in large part because of his opposition to the disastrous Iraq War and his promise of a smarter Middle East policy, one less reliant on invasion and occupation. Nevertheless, in office, Obama has supported the occupation of Afghanistan and the NATO-led overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, which led to chaos.
Still, as Obama explained in a September 2014 foreign policy speech, the centerpiece of his strategy in the Middle East has been a more long-distance approach: “taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines.” In other words: air strikes, drones and military aid. He touted the success of this strategy in Yemen and Somalia.
Indeed, Yemen has been the poster child for Obama’s Middle East strategy. Using the U.S. military bases that surround Yemen, we have propped up the corrupt and repressive regimes of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi (i.e., our “partners on the front lines”). In exchange, they let us incinerate alleged militants. And when we slaughter innocents (like 35 women and children in a 2009 bombing, or 12 members of a wedding party in a 2014 drone strike), our partners help cover up our crimes, even jailing the Yemeni journalist who exposed the U.S. role in the 2009 attack.
Of course, the cover-up was effective only in the United States, where most of our news comes from corporate sources that almost never challenge official pronouncements about military or CIA missions. The Yemeni people know all too well our criminal acts. Last September, 13-yearold Mohammed Tuaiman al-Jahmi told the Guardian that “he lived in constant fear of the ‘death machines’ in the sky that had already killed his father and brother” in 2011, as they were out herding the family’s camels. In February, Mohammed himself was killed by a U.S. drone.
The Obama “success story” in Yemen had already come to an end in January, when Houthi rebels took control of the presidential compound in Sanaa, ousting Hadi, his prime minister and his entire cabinet. The motto of the new leaders is “Death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.” On February 10, the State Department confirmed that it had closed the U.S. embassy in Yemen, the third in an Arab country since 2012.
In truth, Obama’s foreign policy is similar to George W. Bush’s. The war contractors want to keep the rivers of taxpayer cash flowing into their coffers, while multinational energy firms want the U.S. to keep supporting brutal, undemocratic regimes that keep their boots on the necks of restive citizens who might object to foreign firms exploiting national resources. And as long as our laws permit corrupt ties between corporate interests and politicians, we will continue to see disastrous failure after failure of our foreign policy.
In February, Obama led a three-day summit on countering violent extremism. The president’s remarks at this summit, of course, made no mention of our odious drone policy. No citizens of Yemen or Pakistan were invited to speak about how living with the constant anxiety caused by armed drones buzzing in the sky drives residents to join anti‑U.S. terror groups. Nor was there any talk of the blowback caused by the U.S. military bases which garrison the greater Middle East, or of the corrupt, repressive regimes that those U.S. bases support. Instead, leaders of some of those regimes attended the summit.
Obama did offer empty rhetoric about how we are not at war with Islam. Such words are unlikely to impress Muslims outside the United States, who know that it’s Muslims who populate Obama’s kill list, who are indefinitely detained at Guantánamo without charges and whose systematic torture by the CIA was swept under the rug by Obama.
Americans, who are ill-informed about our actions overseas, will hear Obama’s empathetic rhetoric and quite rationally conclude that the reason we are losing in places like Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan is because Obama is too soft. Perhaps our next president will be someone who promises to get tougher on Muslim extremists. But until we end the partnership between government and corporate power, three things will remain constant: Our foreign policy will be expensive for U.S. taxpayers, profitable for the war contractors and disastrous for everyday people.