The Obama White House insists Yemen is a successful model for its counterterrorism strategy, even as international military operations escalated there overnight and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced into hiding.

It's a counterintuitive claim that puzzles national security experts and enrages Republicans.

In a testy exchange with an ABC reporter Wednesday, Obama Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted that the United States continues to "enjoy the benefits of a sustained counterterrorism security relationship with the security infrastructure that remains in Yemen." President Obama has argued in the past that Yemen is a model for his small-footprint strategy.

Critics say that the collapse of the Yemeni government shows the failure of that model — and that the rhetoric coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., is further proof of how detached Obama is from events in the Middle East.

The White House, however, is loath to walk back the flowery language of its handling of Yemen — an admission that would leave Obama with few victories left to claim in a region consumed by chaos.

"You would think they have been mugged by reality enough to shift that line," said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. "But they see everything through the lens of domestic politics. Calling Yemen a success story was a desperate fallback position from admitting he didn't have a strategy."

Perhaps more so than ever before, Obama is regretting his framing of events in Yemen.

"This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground," Obama said in September. "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years."

Hadi's ouster could create a power vacuum for the Islamic State and launch a proxy war between Iran, which supports the rebel forces, and Saudi Arabia, which is backing the Yemeni government. On Thursday morning, Saudi Arabia launched air strikes in Yemen.

Yet the White House claims to have the situation under control, pointing to the drone campaign that is continuing in Yemen after American forces evacuated in recent days.

And Obama's surrogates on Wednesday stood firm in their description of Yemen as a success story for the president.

"That is a template that has succeeded in mitigating the threat that we face from extremists in places like Yemen and Somalia," Earnest said Wednesday. "And it's the template that we believe can succeed in mitigating the threat emanating from Syria as well."

But even some of the president's allies were frustrated with the tone coming from the White House, as Yemen appears to be on the brink of civil war.

"It sounds absurd," a veteran Democratic strategist told the Washington Examiner. "You can't call it a success when the [Yemeni] president is running for his life. It's time to break out the thesaurus and find something different to call it."

Obama has repeatedly struggled to find a middle ground to appease progressives wary of messy military entanglements and more hawkish lawmakers who say he is making the United States less safe by not combating the threat before it explodes.

The warning signs in Yemen were evident well before U.S. special operations forces recently left the country and Hadi fled the presidential palace.

Any gains achieved by the administration in recent years in Yemen have evaporated, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula spreading at an alarming rate.

The latest developments in Yemen came as Iraq spiraled out of control and a day after Obama announced a slowing in the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan amid concerns about the Afghan government's ability to combat terror networks there.

However, the White House implied Wednesday that Yemeni extremists were on the defensive.

"They are still in the crosshairs" of the United States, Earnest claimed.

Even with the threat of civil war looming, Obama assured Americans in September that Yemen was undergoing a remarkable turnaround that validated his approach to fighting terrorism. The Iranian-backed rebel forces, known as the Houthis, were already amassing control of a growing number of major areas in a gradual march south through Yemen.

And security experts said American drones alone would hardly eradicate the threat in Yemen.

"It's a way of mitigating the threat, not defeating al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Phillips said. "Yemen is the backdoor to Saudi Arabia. It's not being treated as such by this administration."