Barack Obama is not the first US president to find Yemen a challenge. And the current $70 million package of military and security assistance is not the first $70 million US aid program to Yemen.
Two decades ago, in 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush was preparing for his looming invasion of Iraq - what would become Operation Desert Storm. Like his son in 2002, Bush was eager to force a unanimous vote in the United Nations Security Council endorsing his war. But unlike George Junior who abandoned the UN when the Council stood defiant against his illegal war, the first President Bush was willing to pay - in expensive bribes and political concessions - to win what the great Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmad called "a multilateral fig-leaf for a unilateral war."
For poor and weak countries on the Council, the United States offered new economic assistance, access to cheap Saudi oil, and crucially, military aid packages to governments long denied such support because of civil wars and/or widespread corruption and repression in their countries. So the governments of Colombia, Ethiopia, and Zaire all took their kickbacks and voted yes. For China, which had threatened to veto the war-backing resolution, the Bush administration offered diplomatic rehabilitation and the resumption of long-term development aid, both of which had been cut in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre the year before. China abstained.
Two countries were left. One was Cuba, which refused on principle to endorse the US-led invasion, although Cuba had joined in the Council's unanimous condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as illegal. The other "no" vote came from Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Yemen was serving as a Security Council member largely in recognition of its reunification after 10 years of a brutal civil war. With the Arab world divided down the middle by the threat of a U.S. attack and only one Arab country on the Council, there was no way Yemen could endorse an invasion of its region.
Yemen voted no. And no sooner had the Yemeni ambassador, Abdullah al-Ashtal, put down his hand, then a U.S. diplomat moved to his side, telling him "that will be the most expensive 'no' vote you ever cast." The remark was picked up on an open UN microphone and immediately broadcast throughout UN headquarters and soon throughout the world. Journalists and analysts excoriated the U.S. diplomat for not knowing the mike was on and being caught in such an embarrassing situation. I was at the UN at the time, and I always thought he knew exactly what he was doing - because the message was not really aimed at Yemen. No one in Washington knew or cared at that time about what Yemen or Yemenis did or thought. The message aimed much broader, at every country in the UN that might consider defying U.S. power. The message was clear: if you cross us on an issue important to us, you will pay a price.
The people of Yemen paid a huge price. Three days later Washington made good on its threat and cut its entire aid budget to Yemen, an already measly $70 million. And today, 20 years later, diplomats and staff around UN headquarters still refer uneasily to the "Yemen Precedent."
This week the Obama administration announced plans to send $70 million in aid to Yemen. But it won't be for medicine, building homes, or job training. And the accompanying U.S. experts won't be hydrologists or doctors or midwife instructors. The $70 million will be for "counter-terrorism" and "security" purposes - and the U.S. experts will be military trainers and various kinds of special forces.
But a strengthened Yemeni military will not reverse Yemen's legacy of anti-Americanism and the support for anti-U.S. violence that sometimes accompanies it.
What if - just imagine - the United States had not used Yemen to broadcast the price of defiance to other wavering governments? What if the United States had not reprimanded the Yemeni government by punishing the entire Yemeni population and then largely ignoring the impoverished people for most of two decades? What if, instead of cutting its entire aid budget, the United States had flooded Yemen and its people with agricultural assistance, training for midwives and doctors, access to the latest hydrology technology to recover scarce water, and lots and lots of money for Yemenis themselves to use to build up their own country's social and physical infrastructure as they chose, not as US "experts" imposed?
Today, twenty years later, things might just be a whole lot different.