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Administration Maintains Radio Silence on Yemeni Protests

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, Nov. 2, 2010. John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, stands at right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For the most part, the White House and the State Department have responded to the follow-on protests throughout the Arab world with a respect and concern for individual and civil rights. The State Department called for freedom of assembly and restoration of Internet services (I’ve heard conflicting reports say it wasn’t actually out) in Algeria. National security advisor Tom Donilon criticized Iran for failing to allow for protests before today’s demonstrations in Iran, and after the protests, Hillary Clinton described them as a “testament to the courage of the Iranian people.” She characterized the American message on these protests as consistently on the side of freedom of assembly and opportunity.

But Justin Elliott notes that this isn’t entirely true. In fact, one country’s protests haven’t been noted by the US government – those in Yemen.

Do those same universal rights apply to opposition protesters in Yemen? Crowley did not immediately respond to my request for comment. Obama raised the issue of protest on a call with Yemen’s president of 32 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, on Feb. 3. But the White House has, as far as I can tell, been silent in the face of an ugly crackdown on protesters in Yemen in the past few days.

Yemeni police have, if anything, been more brutal than their counterparts across the Arab world, using sticks and daggers to break up protests today. Protesters have been attacked and detained, and the pro-government thugs clearly had help from the military, including transport in one of their vehicles.

It’s not hard to see what accounts for this discrepancy. Egypt may have been an ally in the so-called war or terror, but Yemen has of late become more crucial to that effort. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has helped US forces engage in drone attacks against Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, as revealed in Wikileaks cables. He has also aggressively confronted AQAP members inside his borders. In short, Saleh has been helpful to US interests and allowed his country to be used as a counter-terrorism staging ground, and so the authoritarianism doesn’t much faze our government.

This quickly became untenable in Egypt, but I would imagine that Americans have far less understanding of Yemen; they don’t visit there on vacations or anything. So this contradictory position of support for human rights in some countries and not in others can probably hold, even in the post-Egypt landscape.

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David Dayen

David Dayen