President Obama emerged from a meeting with Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi praising him for ushering in serious diplomatic reforms and pushing back against al Qaeda but pointedly did not announce an agreement to repatriate any Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
Under Hadi’s leadership, relations between the U.S. and Yemen have improved dramatically, Obama said, as the Yemeni people have worked to “produce a constitution and transition to a fully democratic government.”
Obama also gave Hadi credit for cooperating with the U.S. on countering terrorism in the region and for helping to curtail al Qaeda’s influence in Yemen.
“Because of some of the very effective military reforms that President Hadi initiated when he came into this office, what we’ve seen is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, move back out of territories it was controlling,” he said.
Hadi, speaking through a translator, said Yemen’s partnership with the U.S. is “critical” to both countries.
Al Qaeda has driven business and tourism out of Yemen, Hadi said, “so our operations against those terrorist elements are actually serving in the interests of Yemen.”
Hadi described the process surrounding the the development of Yemen’s new constitution, which he said involves participants from “all walks of life”, including “rivals who used to fight one another” but are now “sitting at the same dialogue table.”
“This is just a new experience for the region,” he said, calling it “a new phase of history in the Middle East.”
The two leaders issued a joint statement afterward in which they agreed to cooperate closely to enable the return of Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay who have been cleared for transfer.
But the kind words and pledges did little to mollify proponents of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Human Rights First’s Dixon Osburn immediately expressed disappointment in what he deemed “a wasted opportunity to translate the president’s pledge to close Guantanamo into action.”
Those who are still waiting for Obama to fulfill a 2008 campaign pledge to close Gitmo viewed the administration’s decision last week to announce the repatriation of two Algerian detainees, the first detainees to be released this year, as a precursor to bigger steps to close the prison this week during Hadi’s visit to Washington.
“Fifty-six of the 86 detainees cleared for transfer by the defense and intelligence agencies are from Yemen, and there is no better stage to announce forward movement than with Presidents Obama and Hadi standing shoulder to shoulder,” Osburn said.
In downplaying the Gitmo issue during Hadi’s visit, Obama likely is giving his Yemeni counterpart some diplomatic cover back home.
The Yemeni government is engaged in a national dialogue with its citizens about democratic reforms. Those talks are set to conclude in September, and Hadi wants to demonstrate the ability to promote a more wide-ranging agenda than just the return of Yemeni detainees to the United States during his visit.
While the detainee issue was undoubtedly a high priority during their talks, the two leaders also said they wanted to discuss the need for continued intelligence sharing, U.S. drone attacks in the country, as well as the economic and humanitarian problems the country is struggling through.
“It’s quite a concern for the U.S. government to help Yemen” deal with a devastating drought and resulting humanitarian and economic crises, a senior administration official told the Washington Examiner. “We’re also supporting the Yemeni government’s efforts to reform the economy and try to get it on a better path.”
To that end, Hadi met with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Monday.
The Obama administration has gained new trust for the Yemeni government since former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who long appeased al Qaeda, stepped down and formally ceded power to Hadi following the 2011 uprising.
Hadi has readily shared intelligence information with U.S. authorities and has demonstrated a willingness to take on al Qaeda. Under his command, the Yemeni military launched a counter-offensive in his home territory in southern Yemen, forcing al Qaeda operatives to retreat into the mountains.
Despite that progress, Congress and U.S. intelligence agencies are wary that the new government is still too weak to restrain 56 repatriated detainees who may have become radicalized during their decade-long confinement and who might renew their terrorist activities once they return home.