Flashback to 1990: Jim Baker's Quick Trip to Yemen

The sudden discovery that the United States has a major problem in Yemen reminded me of the brief trip to Sanaa that then-Secretary of State James Baker made on Thanksgiving Day in 1990.

Yemen at that time held a seat on the U.N. Security Council and Baker was trying to mobilize a majority for a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq -- which four months earlier had invaded Kuwait. There seemed little chance of getting the Yemeni vote but Baker needed to be seen approaching every council member (except Cuba) -- and there was the outside possibility Yemen might abstain.

We flew in from Saudi Arabia and the day began with a walking tour of the old city. Many of the merchants in the market had posters of Saddam Hussein prominently displayed but the atmosphere was unthreatening. Still, Baker's security detail was on high alert. Many of the men milling around in the souk wore curved daggers stuck through their belts with richly decorated hilts made from rhinoceros horns or ivory.

In their meeting, Baker warned Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh he was risking $70 million in annual U.S. aid by refusing to cooperate with the United States in the Security Council. But in a press conference after the meeting, Saleh delivered a resounding no to the resolution. By late afternoon, we were on the plane heading back to Jeddah.

Later that month, when the resolution came up for a vote in New York, the Yemeni ambassador spoke first in the debate and vigorously attacked the United States and its allies. In his memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy Baker wrote the following: "I scribbled a quick note to Bob Kimmitt (a senior aide). 'Yemen's permanent rep. just enjoyed about $200 to $250 million worth of applause for that speech'." In a footnote, Baker explained that while Washington's aid amounted to around $70 million, other coalition partners and allies also had assistance programs which would now be affected.)

Looking back, the episode seems illustrative of a particular U.S. mindset during that heady period. The Cold War had just ended and we were the winners. The Soviet Union was collapsing, leaving the United States unchallenged as the sole remaining superpower. When the U.S. administration spoke, it expected to be listened to. A country like Yemen defied Washington at its own peril.

It's easy to criticize with hindsight and I don't mean to criticize the U.S. administration then for failing to foresee what might happen 20 years later. But it seems fair to say that its worldview at that time looked at international relations as something to be carried on primarily between leaders rather than between nations. If Yemen's leaders offended the United States by voting the wrong way in the Security Council, Washington could react by cutting off aid to its people. After all, those people could not possibly ever be a threat to us.