The “war on terror” has, since its birth in the smoldering horror of 9/11, carried within it the seeds of deep, cynical irony. The battle cry against the enemies of freedom turned into an exercise in torture and surveillance, set against a bored backdrop of reality TV and economic catastrophe. During this wasted decade-plus, America has turned to a series of unreliable partner governments who frequently made a mockery of its goal to eliminate transnational terrorism while promoting America’s values of democracy and human rights. They illuminated the horrible paradox of being the lone superpower in a time of global dislocation.
Perhaps no one represented this difficulty more than former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Salih. Salih was one of the first allies in the “war on terror,” and one of the most confusing and unreliable friends a country can have. The U.S. never understood Salih, and in its official imagination assumed that any of his behavior was born of a particular anti-Western or pro-terrorism animus. It is therefore one of the stranger ironies that the U.S. has essentially adopted Salih’s style of crisis management in its Yemen policy.