The media has finally given up defending the Obama administration’s claim that Yemen represents a counterterrorism success story. Disbelief at the the White House’s absurd claims peaked last week after the Yemeni President who was supported by the Obama administration fled the country by boat.
There were clear signs of trouble in Yemen last August when the State Department ordered all non-essential U.S. personnel to leave the capital over fears of terrorist attacks. The State Department also advised U.S. civilians to avoid traveling there.
Despite this, President Obama gave a White House address in September during which he said, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Press Secretary Josh Earnest echoed this claim, saying Yemen was, “a place where the American counterterrorism strategy that has been put in place by President Obama has succeeded in degrading the threat that those organizations pose to the United States.”
Self-described “Obama fan” Nick Kristof wrote in response to Obama’s speech, “Obama may be the only person in the world who would cite conflict-torn Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.”
Similarly, the NY Times editorial board called Obama’s claim “absurd”:
While dangerous Al Qaeda offshoot organizations in tribal areas of southern Yemen have been weakened by drone strikes, calling Yemen a success story is absurd. A band of Shiite rebels has recently taken control over much of Sana, the capital, showing how hard it is for the United States to shore up a weak state, particularly given the highly unpopular American drone campaign.
Only a few months later, Shiite Houthi rebels overran the presidential palace, confirming that the Times’ claim had been prescient. CNN noted the collapse in Yemen could, “throw the President’s counterterror message into question.” Similarly, the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor noted the gap between White House claims and reality, “if the broader U.S. policy goal in Yemen is stability, it doesn’t look like a success at all right now.”
Any hope of restoring the rule of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power collapsed last week when he fled the country by boat. Incredibly, the White House chose to double-down on its claim Yemen is a model for conterterrorism strategy.
On the same day President Hadi fled the country, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, “The White House does continue to believe that a successful counter-terrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country.
“That is a template that has succeeded in mitigating the threat that we face from extremists in places like Yemen,” he added.
The following day, Earnest appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe where he was grilled by progressive co-host Mika Brzezinski. “Is Yemen still a success story? Can you say that?” she asked.
Earnest replied, “The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of U.S. policy in Yemen is to make sure that Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the west and to attack the United States.” Earnest was unable to explain how a failed state controlled by Iranian-backed rebels was not a “safe haven” for extremists.
This week, even Vox turned on the White House. In a lengthy post, Amanda Taub used Yemen as a symbol of Obama’s foreign policy failures:
…[I]t’s a bit peculiar to assume, as the present leader of the free world appears to have done, that you are being graded only on your actions, not on overall results. The Obama administration may think it has a successful track record of identifying and averting specific threats to the interests of the US and its allies. But what it actually has is a track record of identifying and averting specific threats, but doing very little to address the root causes of those threats — and then being caught unawares when those root causes lead to catastrophic chaos. Which, in turn, proves to be far worse than the threats the administration was trying to address in the first place.
One would have to grade on quite a curve to call that a success.
The media has been grading on a curve for months. Nevertheless, the absurdity of calling a failed state overrun by Iranian-backed rebels a model for counterterrorism strategy is too much even for Obama’s fans in the media. This may be one reason why Obama seems so desperate for an Iran deal which can provide him with a legacy other than Yemen, Libya and Syria.