Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Belated Realism on Yemen


April 6, 2011

The Obama administration is doing the right thing by trying to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen from office. It should have started weeks ago, after Mr. Saleh’s supporters opened fire on protesters and more than 50 people were killed, turning most of the country against him. With the civilian death toll mounting and the military too divided and preoccupied to pursue a dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate, Mr. Saleh’s swift departure is essential.

Washington has begun privately telling American allies that Mr. Saleh, who had said that he would step down at year’s end, should leave now. Saying this publicly might speed the process, improve this country’s image with Yemenis and make it more likely that a successor government would cooperate in the fight against terrorism.

¶ The United States has important strategic interests in Yemen. The local Al Qaeda branch has been linked to the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. Mr. Saleh allowed the United States to launch missile strikes against Al Qaeda operatives, even claiming responsibility. His military, with American training and intelligence, had been battling them on the ground. But his repression has split the army and drawn elite units to the capital to defend his regime, giving Al Qaeda more room to operate.

¶ Yemen needs to move ahead without President Saleh and with more American support. Two months of unrest, and the expensive promises Mr. Saleh has made to try to retain power, have triggered food shortages and a currency crisis. A swift, smooth transition is in everyone’s interest. And as Washington works out new policies toward Yemen, it must remember that the most reliable allies are those who heed, not shoot, their own people.

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