Secretary Clinton Confronts the Complicated US-Yemen Relationship

Jan 11, 2011 12:03pm

In an unannounced visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Sana’a, Yemen earlier today, where she met with President Ali Adbullah Saleh for roughly two hours. It was the first visit by a US Secretary of State to Yemen in more than a generation.

After their meeting, Secretary Clinton said the US is “committed to a broad relationship between our two countries. We face a common threat posed by the terrorists and al-Qaida, but our partnership goes beyond counterterrorism.”

President Saleh has expressed concern in the past that the US is “more interested in fighting al-Qaida than in helping the Yemeni people,” as no less an authority than Assistant to the President for Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security John Brennan said last month.

“The Yemenis complain that our security and development assistance flows are too slow and encumbered by bureaucratic requirements and complications,” Brennan said in a December 17 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “that we expect economic and political reforms virtually overnight without understanding the implications of such reforms on Yemeni society and stability.”

Clinton today said “above all, the United States is committed to the people of Yemen, Mr. President. We want this to be a relationship not just between leaders and governments, but between the people of Yemen and the people of the United States of America.”

The US has sought for Saleh to pursue al Qaeda more aggressively. Last month, Brennan called himto urge him to take more forceful action against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to thwart attacks in Yemen and the US. Brennan urged Saleh to strengthen cooperative efforts between the nations, particularly noting the need to share “all relevant information from individuals arrested by Yemeni security forces” on a timely basis.

AQAP has been responsible for at least two attempted attacks against the US in the last year: the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of Northwest Airlines flight by Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab and an attempt to send air cargo packages containing explosives to the US.

Al-Qaida terrorists with in Yemen were responsible for attacking the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 and the French oil tanker MV Limberg in 2002. Some of those responsible for the attack on the USS Cole escaped a Yemeni prison in 2006, and formed the leadership of AQAP, which has repeatedly attacked Yemeni security forces. AQAP terrorists have also attacked the US Embassy in September 2008, unsuccessfully tried to kill Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif in 2009, and in 2010 tried to attack the British Ambassador’s vehicle in Sana’a.

In last month’s speech Brennan acknowledged that the US-Yemen relationship is “marked by differences of view, tension, and even strong frustration by each side.” Acknowledging many “animated” conversations with President Saleh, Brennan said it was a “healthy tension.”

In his December 23, 2010 phone call, Brennan also expressed regret for the disclosure by Wikileaks of cables in which Saleh was quoted telling General David Petraeus, then commander of CENTCOM, that when it comes to US operations against AQAP in Yemen, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

The remarks prompted Yemen’s deputy prime minister to "joke that he had just 'lied' by telling parliament" the bombs were deployed by Yemen, according to the cables.

For his part, President Saleh keeps pushing for more non-military related assistance from the US. Yemen, one of the poorest and most water-scarce countries in the world, may have an unemployment rate as high as 40 percent with per capita income under $1,000 per year. Approximately one third of Yemenis are considered undernourished.

Total US aid to Yemen has increased from $22 million in FY 2008 to $307 million in FY 2010. Civilian assistance amounted to $14 million in 2008 to $127 million in 2010

President Saleh has pushed the parliament to change the nation’s constitution to allow him to serve beyond his current seven year term, which began in 2006. Saleh has ruled the country since 1978.

The State Department on December 31 said that the US supports negotiations between Saleh’s government and the opposition “to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion” and to delay parliamentary action.” Clinton today said the US supports “an inclusive political process that will in turn support a unified, prosperous, stable, democratic Yemen."

Brennan has pushed the US to not only be more aggressive in the actions they take against al-Qaida but to push the Yemenis “to move faster along the path of economic and political reform” and to “reach a peaceful accommodation with the Houthis and southern oppositionists.”

Clinton today reiterated that “Yemen has announced a number of reforms that we in the international community look forward to supporting in the economic, social, and political sectors. We support an inclusive political process that will, in turn, support a unified, prosperous, stable, democratic Yemen.”

Clinton also acknowledged Nujood Ali who was married off to an older abusive husband at the age of 10 and forced to drop out of school. Ali sat on the courthouse steps until, aided by human rights attorney Shada Nasser, she was granted a divorce.

ABC's Martha Raddatz told Nujood's story on World News. Watch it here:


“I want to acknowledge one of my heroes, Nujood Ali, who is with us today,” said Clinton, per AFP. Ali was married off as a 10-year-old to a considerably older man and forced to drop out of school.

“She was one of the many, many young girls in Yemen who wanted to continue her education,” Clinton said. “Today Nujood is back in school where she belongs learning English along with her studies. And I really see her as an inspiration.”

Next stop for Secretary Clinton is Oman. 

-Jake Tapper

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