Exporting Democracy: The President's Concerns

In the End, a Painful Choice

By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

SANAA, Yemen -- Sometimes the exportation of democracy out of America means the importation of something less than democracy into America.

On Nov. 8, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, flew into Washington for a three-day visit.

Officials with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) were hoping to meet with Saleh to discuss their work in Yemen, including a program about tribal conflicts that he had made clear he wanted shut down. But the 63-year-old president had more urgent priorities. He was expecting his reward for being an ally in the U.S. war against terrorism: money. Lots of money.

In a democracy, though -- as Saleh should know -- things don't always go according to expectations.

His first meeting was with a government agency called the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), where he was officially informed that because of corruption, fiscal irresponsibility and lack of democratic reform, Yemen was being suspended from a program that would have meant at least $20 million in development aid next year and hundreds of millions of dollars after that.

Next was the World Bank, which recently cut assistance to Yemen by one-third, from $420 million to $280 million, again because of corruption and fiscal irresponsibility. The president hoped that the bank would change its decision, but it didn't.

Then came a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom Saleh told the MCC's decision needed to be reconsidered. She reminded him, point by point, of how many of the MCC's eligibility benchmarks Yemen had failed to meet. Civil liberties. Control of corruption. Rule of law. Economic freedom. He reminded her of how cooperative Yemen had been with the United States on counterterrorism. One has nothing to do with the other, she said, not in this case -- but if Yemen kept pursuing democracy, economic aid would follow.

Next up: talks with various Bush administration officials about counterterrorism and democracy, and then the big moment -- the White House, the Oval Office, and President Bush himself, who reiterated the point made in every previous meeting, that the United States appreciates its friends.

And then, after all that, NDI got its turn.

It had hoped to sponsor a dinner in Saleh's honor, or at least a reception, but instead got 30 minutes on the morning of day three.

"It was a very friendly meeting," NDI's president, Kenneth Wollack, said afterward.

He said they discussed all of NDI's programs in Yemen, including its work with the Parliament, political parties and women and its role in next year's elections.

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