U.S. Ideals Meet Reality in Yemen

By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

SANAA, Yemen -- On the first day, which would turn out to be the best day, the one day of all 180 days when everything actually seemed possible, the president of Yemen hadn't yet dismissively referred to an American named Robin Madrid as an old woman.

The president's foreign minister had yet to insist that a program of Madrid's -- funded by the U.S. government to bring democracy to Yemen's most lawless corners -- had to end immediately.

The president's interior minister had yet to restrict her from traveling to these corners.

The official newspaper of the president's political party had yet to publish a story suggesting that she was a spy.

On the first day, June 15, 2005, none of the 14 tribal sheiks who gathered in a conference room to meet with Madrid about her program had been followed by the internal police. None had been called by the police in the middle of the night. None had been summoned to the president's palace and told that Americans aren't to be trusted. And none had been hurt, killed or nearly killed, which would happen to one of the men on the 88th day of the program when he would be ambushed by three carloads of men with machine guns in an ongoing tribal war, the very thing that Madrid and the men hoped the program could end.

"So much of this work is done in the dark, or at least the dusk," Madrid would say wearily when that happened. But on the first day, she was so happy to have even reached the point of a first day that the very first words she said when she stood to address these 14 men weren't about war or death or terrorism, all of which would come up soon enough, but about the promise of the moment at hand.

"Let me congratulate you for the courage and the vision to start this," she said with an earnestness that would be painful in hindsight, and as she paused so her words could be translated into Arabic, there was a good, wide smile on her face.

Now the men were smiling, too.

Now they were clapping.

And that's how this began.

What happened over the next six months -- a period of time that ended three days ago -- was an experiment in the very meaning of democracy.

How it ended is this: Yemen, as of Dec. 15, was an embryonic democracy of 20 million people, 60 million guns, ongoing wars, active terrorists, extensive poverty, pervasive corruption, a high illiteracy rate, an infamous port where al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in 2000, a notorious patch of valley that is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, and a widespread belief that the United States is the reason life here for so many is so miserable.

On June 15, when Robin Madrid's six-month program began, it was pretty much the same thing.

Does this mean her program failed? Was a $300,000 program to bring democratic values to such a place a waste of money and time? Did it actually succeed?

The answers, which aren't as simple as yes or no, explain what can happen when the United States tries to use democracy as a way to reform the world. The promotion, packaging and exportation of democracy is now America's foreign policy, more so than at any other time in U.S. history. Its most visible example is Iraq -- but that's the extreme version.

More typical of what is going on every day, in every part of the world, continuously and invisibly, can be found in the details of what happened to an unknown program in Yemen, and to a cast of characters stretching from Washington to one of the world's most troubled and mysterious countries, all with differing definitions of what democracy means.

There was Madrid, who tends toward skepticism in her work, but who very much wanted to believe in some gun-toting, dagger-wearing tribal sheiks who asked her for help.

There were the sheiks themselves -- some rough, others educated, some eager, others inscrutable -- who either genuinely wanted help or just wanted to use Madrid as a way to get money.

There was the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who insists that he wants Yemen to become more democratic, perhaps out of genuine desire or perhaps because one of the world's poorest countries needs to position itself to get whatever help it can from whoever is willing to give it.

And there was President Bush, who wants to give money to people like Saleh, some Yemeni sheiks and Robin Madrid because he has turned democracy into something exportable, much like food aid, as a way to fight terrorism.

This is the importance of Madrid's program. It perfectly represents the momentous, even radical, notion that Bush put forth in January in his second inaugural address that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Democracy as commodity: In such a calculation, Operation Iraqi Freedom is one part of Bush's foreign policy; Yemen: Tribal Conflict Mitigation Program is another, along with hundreds of other programs funded under the Bush administration, such as Promoting Democracy Through Community Radio in Congo, $35,000; Supporting the Electoral Process in Mongolia, $109,725; and Increasing the Transparency and Accountability of Governmental Institutions in Moldova, $36,386.

In total, the United States will spend at least $1 billion this year on these programs. An exact figure is difficult to know because democracy promotion has evolved from a theory into an industry that sprawls all over Washington, encompassing the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy and dozens of for-profits and nonprofits around Washington that live and die on government contracts and grants. USAID, which allocates the most money for democracy promotion by far, says it will spend at least $1.2 billion, which it spent in 2004. A State Department spokesman declined to give a figure, saying, "The problem is, it falls into so many categories it's difficult to tease out."

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that since Sept. 11, 2001, the amount of money the Bush administration is steering to promote democracy in Islamic countries of the Middle East has increased dramatically, even at the expense of other regions of the world. To help in this, there is a new office in the State Department called the Middle East Partnership Initiative, overseen by a deputy assistant secretary of state named J. Scott Carpenter, who candidly acknowledges, "We don't know yet how best to promote democracy in the Arab Middle East. I mean we just don't know. It's the early days." But that's no reason not to try, he says, especially in such urgent times. His approach: "I think there are times when you throw spaghetti against the wall and see if it sticks."

This is his attitude not only for Iraq, but also for Yemen, which shares a porous thousand-mile-long border with Saudi Arabia, is crisscrossed with smuggling routes and was described not that long ago as a haven for terrorists. "You have a poor country that's important to us strategically because we don't want to see it become a failed state," he says. "Yemen's right at this point where it could go either way. It's a race against time."

Carpenter is not alone in such direness: Freedom House ranks Yemen barely above "not free," Save the Children ranks it as the fifth-worst place in the world to be a mother or child, and the United Nations Development Program ranks it as No. 151 of 177 countries on its Human Development Index, which makes it one of the least-developed countries in the world

A Yemeni joke: "God went down to Earth to check it out. He didn't recognize anything until he came to Yemen. 'Oh yeah, I remember this place. Just as I created it.' "

Or as Mohammed Al-Tayeb, a longtime government official in Yemen, puts it, "So we are almost a dying nation."

Or as Robin Madrid says, "Absolutely I want to change it. I mean, I hate seeing people suffering. I hate it."

She is 65, a grandmother and the country director in Yemen for a Washington-based nonprofit called the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). She works in an office with bombproof windows and lives in a house with round-the-clock guards.

She has been married several times, first to a Chicano activist, then to an Iranian Marxist, then to a development specialist with the World Bank. Before NDI, she worked in Washington, Indonesia and various parts of the Middle East, where she dodged stones thrown by young boys whose anger she tried to understand, and never learned Arabic, something she continues to regret.

She chews gum constantly, likes jazz, likes beer, reads Anthony Trollope and misses pork. She always introduces herself as an American. She believes in democracy and in American efficiency. She likes it when the staplers in the supply room are in a neat line, speaks endlessly about "transparency" and "capacity building," says that "I'm living a life I'm proud of," and every so often, when Yemen gets to her, as it inevitably gets to everyone, including Yemenis, she announces, "I'm going to be quiet for a few minutes" and shuts her office door. And then 10 minutes later opens it and gets back to work.

"The workaholic," her staff calls her.

"Dr. Robin" is what the sheiks started calling her after she told them she has a PhD in anthropology.

She arrived in Sanaa on May 5, 2001, just after midnight and still remembers her first view from her taxi of what was ahead: "Potholes. Mangy dogs. Burned-out lamps." But she also remembers a walk the next day at twilight, when partway across an old stone bridge, she caught her first glimpse of the gingerbread buildings of the Old City. "I cried. I mean, it was magical." And then being in front of her hotel the following day when a man dropped his machine gun, which hit the ground and fired a bullet into a car tire a few feet from where she was standing. "First there's this horrible city, then there's this beautiful city, then I almost get shot," she says of those first few days.

And then she settled in to do the typical work of democracy promotion: Working with Yemen's various political parties. Trying to increase the political participation of women, who exist throughout much of Yemen as shadows. Trying to help Yemen's marginalized parliament, where one day, a cartoon circulates of President Bush and Saddam Hussein sitting next to each other washing their socks over a caption that reads, "Saddam washes the shame of the Arabs and Bush washes the blood of the innocents."

She worked with that parliament, worked with those women, built a good relationship with the government, stayed late, came in on weekends, oversaw a $2 million annual budget, increased her staff from five to 23, and watched democracy in Yemen inch forward, or since it's hard to tell sometimes, maybe backward. Unlike development work, in which a school is either built or it isn't, or charitable work, in which a village is either fed or it isn't, democracy work is hard to quantify. Either direction, though, it was work she loved, if not for the realities then for the possibilities.

Nowhere in any of this was a thought of working with tribes, which exist well beyond any of the core institutions NDI works with in the 50 countries worldwide where it operates.

One day in spring 2004, however, this began to change when several sheiks from Yemen's most isolated governorates, one of which is called Al Jawf and another of which is called Marib, approached NDI, said they were starting an organization to stop revenge-based killings, and asked for help. What surprised Madrid wasn't the request, because she frequently is asked to help, but that sheiks from such places would make contact with a U.S.-based organization.

What is known about Marib: It is where, in 2002, a pilotless U.S. drone being controlled remotely by the CIA fired a missile into a car on an isolated road, incinerating six suspected al Qaeda terrorists.

What is known about Al Jawf is even less. It is always described the same way, as a lawless place beyond any government control -- and a place Americans never go.

Madrid's answer was no, with an explanation that NDI's mission is to work with parliaments, women's groups and political parties, not to start organizations.

But the anthropologist in her was curious enough to suggest a meeting with some of the sheiks so they could tell her about their lives. A first meeting led to a second, and then a third. Madrid learned about the lack of functioning schools and health clinics, the lack of police and courts, the lack of pretty much everything. They told her about how the simplest disagreement between two members of different tribes could result in words being exchanged, shots being fired, roads being blocked, villages being evacuated, houses being destroyed, lives being lost and full-blown wars. They explained that families of the dead are supposed to be compensated with blood money, but since no one has any money, justice revolves around revenge killings, which is what they were hoping to solve.

The meetings continued through the spring, continued through the summer, and were still happening on Sept. 2, 2004, when, in Washington, the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, which is part of USAID's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, announced it had $8 million to spend on projects to help end conflict and spread democracy to "geo-strategically important" countries and was now accepting applications.

The notice appeared on a Web site called Fedgrants.gov about 9 a.m.

A few minutes later, at NDI's headquarters on M Street NW:

"Sent: Thursday, September 02, 2004 9:16 AM. An announcement was just posted on FedGrants for DRL RFP for conflict management, mitigation and reconciliation. . . . Not sure if folks at NDI would be interested, but at least one of the objectives listed is related to our work. . . ." NDI wasn't the only organization monitoring Web sites for newly available government money; in Washington, such trolling is a profession. There was no way for NDI to know how many other people at competing organizations had seen the notice, but a guiding rule in a business as competitive as democracy promotion is to act fast. Soon a meeting was underway to decide which of NDI's country programs would formally apply for the grant, and soon after that Yemen became the choice.

That gave Madrid and a colleague from Washington two weeks to come up with a proposal. Which of course turned out to be about the sheiks because by this point Madrid had become convinced of their sincerity. "Of course they want money," she said. "Poor people want money. But they also want us to help them project their voice, they want training and they want access to the rest of the world."

The proposal:

For $743,002, it said, NDI would shape tribal men from Al Jawf, Marib and a third governorate called Shabwa into an organization with an executive board, officers, bylaws, a code of conduct and various committees. It would assist them in setting up offices. It would teach them how to keep records. It would train them in conflict resolution. It would support them in negotiating truces, setting up no-shooting zones around places such as health clinics and schools, and organizing seminars in conflict prevention. And it would help them establish credibility with international donors so that at the end of NDI's program they would be self-sufficient enough to attract money and continue on their own.

The proposal was 16 pages long. Single-spaced.

"Perhaps overly ambitious," Madrid would acknowledge later.

What happened between Oct. 1, 2004, and June 15, 2005, was that the bureaucracies of two countries took over. The proposal was reviewed, eviscerated and completely rewritten.

The focus on the sheiks changed. The money was cut in half. The project was delayed. And the whole thing disappeared for a while into the part of democracy promotion that isn't the soaring words of an inaugural speech, but the commodification of democracy into something suitable for export.

Meanwhile, in Yemen -- where the U.S. Embassy had to shut down for two days because of a security threat, another al Qaeda trial was underway and the Yemeni government announced that "extremist" forms of Islam are being taught to 330,000 children in 4,000 underground schools -- there were problems with the proposal as well.

In December, the USAID mission, which originally endorsed the NDI program, sent an e-mail saying that because of "the sensitivity of the project," NDI had to agree to "coordinate very closely with the U.S. Embassy and USAID in order to manage potential risks" from the program. These risks included "increased tensions between tribal groups and the government, and the possibility of strained relations" between the Yemeni government and the United States.

What the e-mail didn't say, but what was becoming clear, was that President Saleh was becoming increasingly suspicious of this little program. One of the ways Saleh has remained in power since 1978 has been by keeping the tribes divided, and a program that would unite sheiks from a dozen tribes and three governorates -- sheiks in control of about 25,000 men armed with machine guns, grenades and heavy artillery -- would certainly be a "potential risk." Would such a program affect Saleh's cooperation on counterterrorism if it went forward?

That was the embassy's growing concern, which left Madrid suddenly worried about this insistence on close coordination. "It would be disastrous for our work in Yemen if we were to become seen as an arm of the Embassy," she wrote to her supervisor in Washington.

"I would strongly suggest walking away from this program under conditions like this," came the reply. "Let's get out."

She almost did, but a final conversation produced a compromise: a six-month , $300,000 program to research tribal conflicts, rather than a program that would unite sheiks to end them.

USAID was happy with this. Madrid wasn't, but made peace with it by deciding to use some of the $300,000 to keep working with the sheiks anyway, which was exactly what she was doing on June 15 when the program officially began.

"Let me congratulate you," she told 14 sheiks at the first board meeting of the Yemeni Organization for Development and Social Peace.



And things fell apart from there.

Twenty-five days later:

"One of them is carrying a gun," a man named Ali Chahine, who is a trainer in conflict resolution, whispered to Madrid.

They were looking at 25 sheiks -- the entire membership of the Yemeni Organization for Development and Social Peace -- who had driven across the sands and mountains of Yemen to the coastal city of Al Mukalla for a three-day workshop that, judging by the agenda, could have been occurring on any weekday at any Holiday Inn in the United States. This was the first step, to teach these men how to be a legitimate, self-sustaining nongovernmental organization (NGO), and Chahine would be leading them in sessions such as "Team Effectiveness Training" and "NGO Organizational Structure."

"Oh, a lot of them are carrying guns," Madrid whispered back, trying to reassure him. "It's just part of their jewelry."

But the fact was, she was wondering about them, too. A few she knew well. A few more she knew somewhat. But half of them she was now seeing for only the first time, and enough had happened in the past 25 days to make her, if not suspicious, at least wary.

The worst of it: When she heard that someone in the U.S. Embassy had described her program as a project "to find out where the terrorists are hiding." "If people are talking like that, it'll kill us," she said, so upset she was shaking. "It puts my local staff at risk, it puts all of my programs at risk. It could be a disaster."

But she also was wondering whether these sheiks would stick it out through the long slog of becoming an NGO. She looked at a sheik who, in addition to his handgun, was wearing a jewel-encrusted watch, probably bought with the monthly stipends many sheiks discreetly receive every month from Saudi Arabia. Would he care about writing proper bylaws?

How about the one who can't read or write and has several wives, one of whom he married when she was 11? Could he learn proper accounting methods?

Or how about the sheik whom Madrid knew best of all, a man from Marib named M'Fareh Mohammed Buhaibeh who was one of the sheiks to first approach NDI? In the months since, as Sheik M'Fareh emerged as the leader of the organization, Madrid had spent many evenings with him learning about his life. He grew up in a village where people lived in tents made of camel hide. His school was a blanket on the sand. "How old are you?" Madrid asked him once, and when this stooped man with such old hands and exhausted eyes said he was 55, she felt a fresh wave of sadness for the whole place. Would someone like him have the patience to keep at this for this six months?

But the sheiks had questions, too -- about her.

In the beginning, all they had wanted to do was form some kind of committee to take on the problem of revenge killings; now, 15 months later, here they were attending a three-day workshop on the Arabian Sea because that is what an American told them they needed to do. "You have to meet certain requirements," she had said to some of them one day, explaining that no organization would give them money until they were established as a legitimate NGO -- so they became an NGO. "How many of you have used Excel before?" she had asked another time, explaining the need to keep books -- so they learned about the computer program.

More on faith than understanding, they had gone along with what she had said, but they were wondering whether, in the months ahead, she would stick with them.

Sheik M'Fareh once asked her this, and her answer -- "Promises are cheap" -- didn't exactly put him at ease. So they wondered: Does she understand the risks they are taking? That the government could somehow punish them? Or arrest them?

Does she understand the pressure had already begun? Because a few days before the retreat, the president had summoned 10 of the sheiks to his palace to ask them what they were doing working with an ajooz , an old woman. "Welcome, Americans," he had sarcastically greeted them, several of the sheiks said. "Be careful of the Americans," one recalled him saying. Another recalled, "He said some bad words. He said, 'Don't trust the Americans. They will not give you aid, and, if they do, it won't be more than $100.' He said they are all liars." Several said that after leaving the palace they were followed, and that on the drive to the retreat they were stopped at checkpoints, something that, because of their status, had not happened to them before.

Everyone wondering about everyone: That's what was happening 25 days into the program. In this atmosphere, Chahine went to the front of the conference room and said to the sheiks, "Look at each other. See each other. Think: Can I work with these people? Do we have the will to work together?

"We have to trust each other," he said, and with that introduction they settled in for three days of work.

They did trust-building and team-building exercises. They learned about turning "problems into objectives" and how to be "preventative rather than reactive." They nodded solemnly when one sheik said, "Suffering has brought us together," and came up with a list of projects to do, including helping in schools, furnishing empty health clinics and solving a tribal conflict in each governorate in a way that wouldn't involve paying blood money. They kept their guns holstered and their daggers sheathed and were heartbreakingly earnest when Chahine asked them to write down their own private hopes of what they wanted to accomplish.

"Our children finishing school," one wrote.

"Democracy in the whole Arab world," another wrote.

And to write down the most important moment of their lives.

"Coming here."

"The establishment of our NGO."

"This retreat."

"Thank you, Dr. Robin," some of the sheiks said in unison at the end of the retreat, and then, optimistic and hopeful, they drove off across a wobbly country where, in the course of a day, everything can seem to change.

Because six days after the end of the retreat, several of the sheiks were gathered at NDI, discussing something that had happened the day before. The president had given a speech in which he said he might not run for reelection in 2006. He then went on to talk about Yemen's need for democracy, about the countries of the world that were now Yemen's friends, and about one organization of one such country that had begun working with some Yemeni sheiks to solve the problem of revenge killings. And then said, either laughingly or mockingly, depending on the translation, "Solving the problem of revenge of 20 million people with $300,000?" And then asked why this organization was working with some sheiks instead of through proper channels in the Yemeni government. And said either adamantly or threateningly, depending on the translation, "We do not want anyone to interfere in our internal affairs."

It had rained after the speech, clearing the streets into the night. But now, this next day, the sun was out, children could be heard chanting at the schools behind the high walls, traffic was again moving along the street named in honor of a Palestinian boy who was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers as he cowered against his father, and the bombproof

windows were open at NDI, where the light coming in revealed a worried woman who was saying to the sheiks, "I do support this. From my heart."

Her anxiety was evident, though, so much so that one of the sheiks felt compelled to say something to encourage her.

His name was Rabea al-Okaimi. He is from Al Jawf. Soon, while trying to mediate a spiraling war between his tribe and another, a war that has been continuing off and on for 25 years, he would drive into an ambush of machine guns.

Right now, though, on day 33 of this six-month program, what he said to the only American he knows was this:

"We're very proud of you."

Madrid blinked in surprise.

"And," he said, " we will continue."

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