First the Guns, Now the Butter

America shows two faces in Yemen—both meant to fight terror

"People know this is a gift from the American people," said the sheikh proudly. "It's written on the plaque outside. If the gift is complete, the gratitude will be for the Americans." If the clinic wasn't completed, he added with a twinkle, they would still be grateful.

Edmund Hull is no longer ambassador, but many who had dealings with him in Yemen note he operated with a freedom that set him apart from his diplomatic peers. In a less complimentary assessment, a local newspaper accused him of behaving like a "high commissioner." An audience with Hull, who was said to occasionally wear cowboy hats to meetings, could be considered more useful than a get-together with a government minister. In the first place, he had at his disposal a large pool of funds for projects he thought important. And in a country where corruption and bureaucracy check even the simplest plans, his ability to move quickly on such projects was valued.

The health clinic, which when completed will be called a "rural hospital" by the Americans, satisfies what officials here say is their goal: that U.S. foreign policy should inform development. "A lot of these programs are intended to create a more educated, healthier society, so potential terrorists will have more to do with their lives," said an embassy official. "There's still the security arm of our development, which is capturing Al Qaeda."

Sheikh Murdi Mabhooth Kuwalan (center) said he requested funding for a clinic.
photo: Kareem Fahim
Sheikh Murdi Mabhooth Kuwalan (center) said he requested funding for a clinic.

Louis Coronado, the deputy head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Yemen, was careful to note that all the U.S. projects are joint efforts with the Yemeni government. "We're trying to support the hospital in Marib, the clinic, renovate schools, equip the hospitals," he said. "These are things that are tangible, visible. The taxpayer needs something [he] can see."

Slaughter of the 'Believing Youth'

This summer, violence returned again to Yemen, when Hussein al-Houthi, a former member of parliament once close to President Saleh, led a movement called the Believing Youth in a three-month revolt against the government in the northern mountains of Saada, one of the governorates that straddle the Saudi border. Thousands are thought to have been killed, hundreds of them civilians; but no one is sure, because the government has restricted access to the area. President Saleh's government branded al-Houthi—who had been issuing anti-Israeli and anti-American fatwas, or religious opinions—a terrorist financed by foreigners. Not long after, they killed him.

It wasn't the fact of the conflict that shocked Yemenis, but the ferocity. For underneath a fragile legal code here, there is a much respected tribal law, which usually intervenes when Yemenis quarrel with one another.

Most people think the government overreacted, but no one is sure why. At least one of the theories involves the U.S., positing that a Yemeni security official, sensing the prevailing winds, tried to prove his anti-terrorist credentials by unleashing his forces.

The speculation underscores another concern about America's growing involvement in this nascent model democracy: that the war on terror will extract a cost from Yemen's fragile political experiment, one it can scarcely afford.

A friendship's rewards

It was Yemen's uglier qualities, including lawlessness and the suspicion that terrorists would find easy refuge in the vast countryside, that made an alliance attractive to U.S. policy makers.

The country shot to infamy in October 2000, when militants linked to Al Qaeda rammed a hole in the side of the USS Cole while it was docked in the southern port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. After September 11, Yemen's reputation took more hits, becoming known internationally as the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden's family and as the birthplace of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the Al Qaeda militant captured in Pakistan thought to be one of the planners of 9-11.

Then came the attack on the French tanker Limburg in October 2002, and the murder two months later of three American missionaries. Security officials fretted about Yemen's often porous border with Saudi Arabia, and its hundreds of religious schools, concentrated mostly in the north, that tended toward strict Salafi teachings.

The military partnership, which had started modestly in the late 1990s, blossomed. The U.S. began to train counter-terrorism forces, provided technology to help monitor borders, and last year supplied the Yemeni coast guard with training and a fleet of ships.

In June of this year, President Saleh was one of just four Arab leaders who traveled to Georgia for the G8 Summit, where George W. Bush unveiled his much discussed Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative. The initiative was an outgrowth of Bush's doctrine for reform in a vast area stretching from Pakistan to Morocco.

Bush had pledged that the spread of democracy and freedom in the Arab world should no longer suffer under the weight of Washington's traditional alliances. The traditional allies complained, and by the time the G8 convened, the initiative had been so diluted as to be almost meaningless. Regardless, Washington's closest Arab friends, including Saudi Arabia's crown prince Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, skipped the meeting.

In Yemen—a country of over 22 million, with some oil but few other sources of exports—reform, democracy, and cooperation in the war on terror have combined to represent a substitute commodity. Civil society groups have become a cottage industry here, numbering in the hundreds and receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid. "If the word's out that the Americans are funding women's initiatives, suddenly every NGO in Yemen is a women's group," one Washington-based researcher observed.

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