When Spanish marines began squeezing off rounds at a mysterious vessel they intercepted earlier this month in the Arabian Sea, their shots reverberated not only in the war on terror, but in the war for fiscal responsibility.
The marines had seized what turned out to be a North Korean ship carrying 15 Scud missiles, as well as other military equipment, to the government of Yemen.
The discovery on the high seas alarmed U.S. officials. North Korea is a member of the so-called axis of evil, while Yemen is a self-proclaimed ally in the war on terror — but also a haven for al Qaeda terrorists.
The Scuds were hidden under 40,000 bags of cement, and could have been used to deliver nuclear, chemical or biological payloads.
After detaining the ship and its crew, U.S. authorities determined that no international laws had been violated, that the weapons would be for Yemen's use only. The shipment was allowed to continue on.
But while the crisis may be over for U.S. diplomats, it might only be an opening volley for the bean-counters. Yemen received $5 million in U.S. development aid, and as a major battleground in the war on terror, it is on track to receive far more in the future.
Yemen's apparent disregard for U.S. concerns about North Korea and weapons proliferation, however, has revived questions about whether or not Washington can buy friends that will live up to its expectations.
In 2001, the United States gave a total of $10.9 billion in foreign aid, and is expected to give a total of $11.4 billion in 2003. Earlier this month, the White House directed the Pentagon to provide up to $92 million in military equipment and training to Iraqi opposition groups in preparation for a potential war in Iraq.
As the United States gears up for another effort which will send it across the globe in search of allies, the Yemeni incident may remind diplomats who are going out with their wallets in hand: Is it worth it?
The Past Is Precedent
While foreign aid is usually disbursed in response to humanitarian concerns, political interests often play a greater role.
Some of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid are not the neediest countries in the world. Rather, countries like Israel, Egypt, Colombia and Jordan are key to securing U.S. interests in some of the world's more turbulent areas.
It's an old joke in the diplomatic community to liken the secretary of state to a neighborhood mobster, and call the foreign aid budget his "walking-around money."
This role of foreign aid was especially apparent during the Cold War, when the United States distributed fortunes in the interest of combating communism.
Many dictators of the era couldn't have survived without funds from Washington — despite their flagrant disregard for other American interests, like democracy and free markets, critics said.
But because of their antagonism to communism, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Panama's Manuel Noriega, the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos, and even Iraq's Saddam Hussein all received foreign aid from the United States.
Osama bin Laden may have even benefited from U.S. foreign aid because the CIA funded many of the Islamic fundamentalist militias that fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
"Clients during the Cold War professed to blocking Soviet influence, but often they were doing little more than consolidating their power," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy expert at the Washington-based CATO Institute.