In what can only be described as awkward timing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Yemen only a couple of weeks after amendments went to parliament that would allow President Salih to remain in office as long as he sees fit. Hardly the best time for the first visit by a US secretary of state in 20 years.
So, why did she go?
The topic of cables released by WikiLeaks did not figure heavily during the visit, officials said, even though President Saleh was depicted in the confidential diplomatic cables as a manipulative negotiator, alternately welcoming and rebuffing American overtures to help track down Al Qaeda operatives.
Why else keep Yemen on the schedule? (I assume this was planned before the amendments went to parliament, but I would be happy to be proven incorrect.) After all, this wasn't really the secret, last-minute meeting that the US wanted, despite the breathless headlines and stories coming from reporters flying with Clinton.
I read about the Yemen stop on Sunday in the Arabic -anguage Mareb Press, as the New York Times' article above alludes to.
Whatever went on in the three-hour meeting with Salih - and if Clinton did, like I believe, bring personal apologies about Wikileaks and try to repair some of the damage, then I think that was a wise move - Clinton made some interesting comments.
For example, and again from Mark Landler's piece in the New York Times:
At the town-hall meeting, Mrs. Clinton was asked by an opposition leader how the United States could tolerate Mr. Saleh’s strongman rule, which he said had contributed to the flowering of terrorism in Yemen.
“We support an inclusive government,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We see that Yemen is going through a transition. And you’re right: it could one way or the other. It could go the right way or the wrong way.”
I'm curious as to what this "transition" is that Secretary Clinton sees? Salih has been president longer than unified Yemen has been a country. I'm not sure there is much a transition here. Maybe she was using Secretary of State Baker's notes from his meeting twenty years ago when there actually was a transition taking place.
She also talked about the "rebalanced" US aid to Yemen. Coupled with John Brennan's remarks last month, in which he suggested that US CT strategy in Yemen was nested within its broader foreign policy, this statement makes an interesting pairing.
The US has a secretary of state that talks about bringing non-military aid to Yemen more in-line with military aid, while President Obama's chief CT advisor talks of CT being only a part of broader US policy towards Yemen.
And yet on the ground there is steady stream of US military and intelligence officials visiting Yemen.