It seems like only yesterday that President Barack Obama was citing the security situation in Yemen as a positive example for counterterror planners around the globe.
In September of last year, Obama addressed the nation regarding the increasingly perilous situation in the Middle East as ISIS expanded its reach from Syria to Iraq and had begun to threaten Baghdad.
“This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort,” Obama said, “using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”
“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,” he added.
At this, terrorism analysts rolled their eyes. Obama’s assertion that the West’s counterterrorism strategy in Yemen is some sort of model was a dubious claim even in the early autumn of 2014.
“According to Yemeni intelligence memos obtained by The Daily Beast, Obama’s Yemen model has been helpless to prevent recent waves of Al Qaeda attacks despite being notified of their specifics days and weeks before,” The Daily Beast reported at the time.
In the weeks that followed Obama’s declaration of support for the Yemen model, militants associated with Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the leader of an anti-American Shia insurgency group, have accelerated the pace of attacks against the central government. Overnight, the militant group enjoyed some of their biggest successes yet. Houthi rebels executed attacks on Yemeni government troops near the presidential palace and stormed the nation’s state-run media building. The government is calling it “a step towards a coup,” but in reality, it looks more like the Western-backed government in Sanaa is simply coming apart.
The fighting near the palace marks the biggest challenge yet to the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi by the Houthis, who seized the capital, Sanaa, during their advance in September across parts of Yemen. Many believe deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in a deal after Arab Spring protests, backs their campaign.
The Houthis’ al-Maseera satellite television channel aired a report accusing the army of opening fire without reason on a militia patrol in the area of the presidential palace, sparking the violence. A Yemeni military official, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, said the Houthis provoked the attack by approaching military positions in the area and setting up their own checkpoints.
Hadi doesn’t live at the palace, but his home nearby quickly was surrounded by additional soldiers and tanks amid sporadic gunfire, witnesses said. Schools located near the clashes also closed as Houthi rebels manned checkpoints throughout the city. Many families remained trapped in their homes.
On Monday morning, CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr reported that American officials have told her they are prepared to evacuate the U.S. embassy in Yemen “on short notice” as fighting continues to rage in the capital.
Yemen is merely the latest of Obama’s counterterrorism “success stories” to utterly collapse in recent months. Once a staple of the president’s State of the Union addresses, Americans should not expect to hear the president crowing about the “decimation” of this or the other Islamist terrorist group this year. The president’s determination to contend that the war on terror is all but won has been undone by the recent explosion of Islamist violence linked to resurgent fundamentalist organizations in the Middle East and North Africa.
It is paradoxical that, as Americans grow less safe from terrorist attacks both at home and abroad, Barack Obama’s job approval rating is rising to its best point since his reelection in 2012. Improved economic growth, reduced unemployment, and (most importantly) collapsing gasoline prices have had the effect of renewing the public’s faith in the president’s leadership skills.
And will the public even notice how their security has eroded under the Obama administration once the president boards Marine One for the last time in January, 2017? As his successor later would, George W. Bush did not make a habit of blaming his predecessor for the disastrously neglected American defense doctrine he was bequeathed. Even if Bush did overtly scold the Clinton White House for its poor stewardship of American national security, it is unclear that it would have been a productive effort. Even some Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), are keen to blame the new war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria on Bush rather than on the president who neglected to contain the Syrian Civil War arising from the Arab Spring revolutions inside Syria. The media will gladly take all the help they can get to deflect blame for the president’s failings away from Obama, and Republicans like Paul will be all too happy to provide it in exchange for some exposure and adoration.
Republicans who warned that Obama’s approaches to national security challenges were flawed or shortsighted and who look to posterity to vindicate them are basing that conviction on faith. If the public does eventually come to blame Obama for the collapse of hard-won stability in the Middle East, it will be in spite of efforts by self-interested Democrats, opportunistic Republicans, and a media culture invested in Democratic success. Don’t get your hopes up.