“We cannot copy the Indonesians exactly, but the idea is controlled chaos,” Ahmar told the unnamed embassy official. The embassy, however, was dismissive of the sheik, concluding that his challenge posed nothing more than “a mild irritation” for Saleh.
Today, Saleh is barely clinging to power amid a popular uprising in Yemen that is unfolding more or less along the lines that Ahmar predicted. Several previously undisclosed U.S. diplomatic cables, provided by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, show that influential Yemenis and U.S. allies repeatedly warned U.S. diplomats of Saleh’s growing weakness in 2009 and 2010. But despite those warnings, the Obama administration continued to embrace Saleh and became increasingly dependent on him to combat an al-Qaeda affiliate that was plotting attacks against the United States from the Arabian peninsula.
The de facto chief of Yemen’s largest tribal confederation, Ahmar told the U.S. official in August 2009 that his scheme would hinge on persuading a powerful Yemeni general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no direct relation) to abandon the president and join the opposition. Last month, the general did just that, with Hamid al-Ahmar, now considered a potential presidential candidate, playing a key behind-the-scenes role.
Since January, spontaneous public revolts have seized the Arab world, sweeping aside autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt while threatening others in Libya, Bahrain and Syria. The classified cables from the embassy in Sanaa, however, make clear that Yemen’s revolution was different: It was plotted and predicted long in advance.
Those same cables reveal that U.S. officials were keenly aware of Yemen’s fragile political and economic straits but largely discounted the prospect that Saleh could be forced out, despite dire assessments of his standing from Arab and European counterparts, from members of Yemen’s political opposition, and even from Saleh’s inner circle.
The U.S. government has not explicitly called for Saleh’s ouster, even though his security forces have been blamed for the shooting deaths of dozens of protesters. U.S. officials and Arab diplomats have been mediating talks, however, between the Yemeni government and demonstrators that could lead to Saleh’s exit.
The State Department declined to comment on the authenticity of the cables or their contents.
“The United States strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of classified information,” said Mike Hammer, the department’s acting chief spokesman. “In addition to damaging our diplomatic efforts, it puts individuals’ security at risk, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with countries to solve shared problems.”