washingtonpost.com
In the End, a Painful Choice
Program Weighs Leader's Edict, Tribes' Needs

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.

"The president strongly encouraged NDI to enhance its efforts," he said.

"It was very friendly," he repeated.

And the tribal program?

"The issue of working in certain parts of the country did come up, and he said, 'Let's discuss this issue when we have more time, in Sanaa.' He wasn't hostile at all. He just wanted more time to talk about it."

That, Wollack said, was the extent of the conversation. Time was up, and he and NDI's chairman, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, left so Saleh could move on to whatever was next on his schedule.

Which turned out to be a stroll among Washington's monuments.

Followed by lunch in Georgetown, a little shopping and a doctor's visit.

And then he headed home.

Home: where portraits of His Excellency Ali Abdullah Saleh, leader of Yemen for 27 years and recipient in the last election of 96.3 percent of the vote, are everywhere. In stores. In restaurants.

On billboards, such as the one announcing the $100 million mosque Saleh is building near his main palace. On banners attached to streetlights, some of which work, most of which don't. In the dens of private homes, where Yemenis gather every afternoon to chew the leaves of a narcotic plant called khat and talk about Yemen's chaotic politics and increasing deterioration. And in hotels with blast walls like the one where Robin Madrid, NDI's Yemen director, was talking to Les Campbell, her Washington-based supervisor, about the chances that Saleh would meet with them.

"It could be any moment," Campbell, who oversees operations in 13 countries in the Middle East for NDI, said, "or it could be no moment."

It was Dec. 3, NDI's tribal democracy program was down to its last 12 days, and Campbell wanted to continue the conversation from Washington before time ran out. The program, funded for six months and with $300,000 by the U.S. government as part of its foreign policy of promoting democracy to combat terrorism, was designed to research and help solve some of the tribal conflicts that have destabilized a part of Yemen that the United States suspects is a terrorist refuge. As the six months had gone by, however, Saleh had made it increasingly clear he was against a program that would teach two dozen tribal sheiks, in control of about 25,000 armed fighters, how to get along, even if the aim was to bring peace and development to one of the most ignored parts of the world.

He had met with the sheiks and told them not to trust the Americans, and he had met with Americans and told them not to trust the sheiks. He had made a speech in which he all but accused NDI of interfering in Yemen's internal affairs. His party newspaper suggested Robin Madrid was an American spy. Four months into the program, his foreign minister informed the U.S. ambassador to Yemen that the program needed to end, and that's one of the reasons Campbell was hoping to meet with Saleh, "to try to determine through speech, body language, anything, where we could go."

Campbell wanted the program to continue, and told Madrid to apply for more government money. Madrid wanted the program to continue, too. So did the U.S. ambassador. Despite episodes of infighting, so did the sheiks. But as with everything that occurs in Yemen, Saleh's is the voice that matters most.

He has run Yemen since 1978, ascending from the military after Yemen's two previous leaders were assassinated within months of each other. "People laughed at his speechmaking. He looked like a comical figure in his uniform. The CIA guy was taking bets -- this guy won't be around in spring," Robert D. Burrowes, an expert on Yemen who teaches at the University of Washington and has been traveling to the country since 1975, said of Saleh's first days. "And 27 years later, here he still is."

Like Harry S. Truman, Burrowes said, Saleh grew into the job. The military uniform became a suit. The wild hair calmed down. The confidence, always there, only increased, especially after Saleh oversaw the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen into one country in 1990, an accomplishment that is highlighted on his official Web site with admiring quotes from other world leaders.

"The unification of Yemen is the only positive event in modern Arab history," said Moammar Gaddafi.

"Yemen unity represents a strong tribute to power and protection, and dignifies the Islamic world," said Saddam Hussein.

Hussein, Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat, Hafez Assad of Syria -- their neighborhood is the one Saleh and Yemen have been part of. Hussein was giving millions of dollars to Yemeni Baathists right up until the U.S. invasion. Saudi Arabia has been paying monthly stipends to Yemeni sheiks for decades; Sheik Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmer, the most powerful sheik in Yemen, is said to receive about $1 million a month. With a population that is 99.99 percent Muslim, thousands of religious schools, a growing Wahhabi influence, and a law based primarily on sharia principles, Yemen seemed as far from Western values as any country on the Arabian Peninsula.

And yet somewhere along the line, after unification, Saleh began moving Yemen toward democracy. Throughout much of the 1990s, Yemen was regarded as the leading democratic force in the Arab world, and while that may not seem like much of a distinction in the West, it was to Saleh, especially as Yemen's economy worsened, its water began running out, its modest oil reserves began running out, Arab monetary contributions diminished, and he needed to find new sources of foreign aid.

Enter the United States -- which had stopped giving aid to Yemen after it sided with Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and started again after the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 -- with its expectations of democracy.

"He leads the charge in promoting democracy and human rights," is how Saleh now describes himself on his Web site, and maybe that's the kind of leader he has grown to be.

Or maybe, as Burrowes said, "he is telling us what we want to hear him say."

Long sanguine about Yemen, Burrowes has become so pessimistic about its future because of corruption that instead of describing Yemen as a democracy, as he used to do to the point of being considered an apologist for Saleh, he now calls it a "kleptocracy -- a government of, by and for thieves." As for the kind of leader Saleh has grown into, Burrowes said, "He has become a very good dictator."

That's one description; another came from U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski as he explained Saleh's unease with NDI's tribal program: "His ability to resolve tribal disputes in a variety of ways, whether by offering favors, offering concessions, applying pressure -- this has been his method, and he has been successful at it, where many before him failed. He considers it his responsibility, and he considers it his success. I think that any involvement by the United States, by any international agency, but especially perhaps the United Sates, will raise his antennae. And in this case, we are certainly going to listen to what the president says."

Waiting for Saleh's call, Campbell and Madrid decided that if it came, Campbell would go alone, just in case Saleh was upset with Madrid. Madrid kept her cell phone on anyway. So did Campbell. Two days passed in silence. "I don't think it's going to work out," Campbell said, but at 10 a.m. on Dec. 5, his phone rang with instructions to go to the palace right away.

Without Madrid, then, who has believed in and worked harder on this program than anyone, at times to the point of exhaustion, Campbell went to see the man who has believed in it least of all. He was escorted through one gate, escorted through a second, and was heading toward a third when he saw Saleh off to the side, standing not on the dirt and rocks that dominate this part of Yemen, but on a lovely lawn of green grass. They shook hands and went inside, and 15 minutes later Campbell was back out.

"Kind of a formal meeting room," he said in the car afterward, describing what happened.

"He sat in his customary seat at the front of the room. There were the usual greetings. Then he started to speak. He said that he very much appreciated NDI's work in the country. That he trusted our motives. That he knew our motives were pure and he knew that we were in Yemen to provide assistance and help.

"But that there were some issues, and particularly the issue of blood feuds, which is how they translated it, that predated NDI in Yemen and in fact go back hundreds of years and are impossible for us to fully understand. He said that it is a big issue in Yemen, that he has instituted committees and other things to deal with this problem. He said, 'I don't care if you have $100 million or $500 million to spend on the problem, you as foreigners are not going to solve it.' He said, 'I would really prefer that you concentrate on the things that you do best.'

"So I said, 'I do understand that, I understand what you say. It's very clear.' I said, 'Having said that, I wonder if there are not misunderstandings about what we're trying to do,' and then he sort of interrupted me, not in a rude way, but he jumped in and he said, 'There have been misunderstandings.' He said, 'Some people high within the government, but even normal people, they think that you are either the CIA or the FBI.' He said, 'That's what people think,' and he said, 'I know that that's not true, and I don't distrust your motives, but if you continue down this path people will think that you are the FBI or the CIA.'

"And I interrupted him and said, 'That would be terrible because I've spent 10 to 12 years at NDI trying to convince people we're not the CIA, so if people are thinking we're the CIA, that's not something I want.' He said, 'Well they will think that because this is an area that you really shouldn't be involved in. You have a mandate here in Yemen, and we appreciate what you do. But this is not it.'

"So.

"That was the end of that conversation."

A few minutes passed.

"I mean, there was no equivocation," he said. "There's no way of mistaking that message anymore. Just very clear."

He sighed.

One conversation done, and one to finish, which had begun as soon as he walked out of the palace and his cell phone rang.

"Hi, Robin," he said.

"I'll tell you when I see you. I'm not comfortable discussing it on the phone."

"I would like to thank NDI and Dr. Robin."

A few hours later, still waiting to catch up with Madrid, Campbell was visiting a sheik who had seated him in a place of honor in his den, which happened to be directly under a portrait of Saleh that was propped up on

a curtain rod.

The sheik, named M'Fareh Mohammed Buhaibeh, was one of the sheiks who originally approached NDI and asked for help in solving tribal conflicts, which led to Robin Madrid's involvement, which led to the $300,000 grant from the U.S. government, which led ultimately to that morning's meeting with Saleh, which M'Fareh knew absolutely nothing about as he continued to speak.

"When NDI started working with us, others started to hear of our needs. The lack of education. Our health needs. Our need for water," he said, and the more he went on, the more uncomfortable Campbell became. Nodding. Wondering what to say. Looking away when M'Fareh said, "NDI became our outlet to clarify this picture to others."

Then came a knock on the door and in walked Madrid, who didn't know, either. Not the outcome. Not yet.

"We're just going through some of the background," Campbell said as she sat next to him under the portrait of Saleh.

"How are you?" M'Fareh asked her, smiling at his American friend, and then turned back to Campbell. "NDI in general, and Dr. Robin in particular, gathered us as one," he said. "She is the only person to have reached out to these tribal divisions."

A wince now.

"We have values. We have ethics. We wish for order. We wish for stability. We wish for democracy. We wish for all good things," M'Fareh went on about the tribes, and then said of Saleh's government, "They live on divide and rule. When they see us having relations with internationals, it makes them very angry."

Almost inaudibly, Campbell said, "I'll say."

Madrid looked at him. "Oh, you've found this out?"

"Yes."

"Uh-oh," she said.

And maybe that's the moment she realized.

"We need to talk about the Saleh meeting," Campbell whispered to her.

But it would be a few more minutes until they could, until dusk, when the mosque near M'Fareh's house, along with hundreds of mosques across Sanaa, and thousands across Yemen, issued the evening call to prayer. M'Fareh rose with the echoes and excused himself to pray, and if Madrid didn't realize before, she did when Campbell began by saying, "Saleh brought up the issue."

Not NDI. But Saleh, because he had something he wanted to say.

Methodically, Campbell told her everything. About the compliments. About the rest of it. "I'm sure that he's not fully understanding what we're doing," he said. "I mean, there's no question about that. But how would you ever get a full hour with the president to get him to actually listen? It's just never going to happen."

Madrid was facing him, holding a pen and a yellow legal pad as she listened. She is always taking notes, which she dutifully types into her computer each day and condenses once a week into summaries that she e-mails to Washington. Her notes on the tribal program run hundreds of pages. But now she put the notepad down.

"Even with an hour of explanation, I'm not sure," she said quietly.

And she then fell silent as M'Fareh came back into the room and Campbell said to him, "So I met with President Saleh earlier today."

Now M'Fareh was silent, too.

"He said, 'I don't care if you have $100 million or $500 million, you're not going to solve that problem,' " Campbell said. "Our point of view is that we don't think we're solving any problem. We just think that we're helping people get together to solve their own problems. And we don't have any ulterior motives in this, other than we think we can help bring some development and democracy to the country."

He paused for translation, and so he could figure out how to say what was next.

"But it's difficult to know what to do when we run up against this kind of blockage," he said. "And we also don't want to jeopardize the other work we're doing."

And there it was, what six months had come down to, one question to be answered, which had to do with what democracy as foreign policy actually means.

In Washington, when that question is asked, it is mostly in terms of congressional funding levels, competition for that money in governmental offices and nongovernmental organizations, and the rhetoric of a political leader trying to convince the nation of a strategy.

"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," President Bush said this year in his second inaugural address.

But on the far side of such rhetoric was its reality: a teetering program in a teetering place where the question of democracy's meaning turned out to be a decision about whom to ignore.

A president who is vital to the U.S. war on terrorism?

Or a sheik who represents a country's most-forgotten people and was now saying so earnestly as to be heartbreaking, "We are citizens. We are Yemenis. The problem is they don't want to reach out to us because we will speak openly about all of the problems. And they don't want that to happen."

He paused for translation. And then said:

"Do you think that's okay? Have you asked yourself that question?"

"No," Campbell said. "I don't think it's okay. I don't think we as an organization should be dictated to about who we can and can't speak with. Either we're welcome in Yemen or we're not. I feel pretty strongly about that. Either we're welcome here or we're not."

"Then I request that since you work in Yemen, you keep working with us," M'Fareh said.

"Well," Campbell said, standing. "It was very nice to meet you."

"Likewise," M'Fareh said. "And we'll have a lot of meetings in the future."

" Inshallah ," Campbell said. God willing.

Outside now:

"So it was real straightforward?" Madrid asked.

"Yeah," Campbell said. "He looked me in the eye the entire time."

And as the program came down to its final days, that's how the decision was made.

On the last day, which was last Thursday, there were at least four tribal wars going on in various parts of Yemen.

President Saleh was in Aden, basking in the chants of delegates at his political party's conventions as they begged him to run for reelection and remain in power for seven more years. "Democracy is our national choice," he told them, which was his way of saying yes.

President Bush was in the White House, watching reports of smiling people with ink-stained fingers and declaring, "May God bless a free Iraq."

Les Campbell was one his way back to Washington, where at NDI they were waiting to hear about a new Yemen proposal they had submitted to the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, this one for 15 months and $645,000 and with the word "tribal" no longer in the title.

Sheik M'Fareh was on the telephone in Sanaa, asking one of Robin Madrid's assistants if NDI was abandoning him and the other sheiks who had sought its help.

And Robin Madrid was in her house, blinking back sudden tears. She had been talking about the success of her other programs, that maybe there would be other ways to keep working with the tribes, that presidents can't be ignored, and that, "I'm a guest in this country, and that's a really important thing." She had said, "If this were the 19th century, what I would be doing is missionary work for Christianity. Now I'm a missionary for democracy, and the only way to do that is with a little humility. Be not so damn sure I'm right. Because if I'm wrong, I'm going to be on an airplane out of this country, and they're going to have to clean up the mess. That really ought to encourage some fear and humility on my part." She had said of the work she'd been able to do with the tribes, "We know them better, and they know us better, and that's a critical basis for the future," and had said of her program: "It was our highest-risk program, and it failed. In terms of what we were funded for, it failed."

And then she had heard what one of the sheiks had said about these past six months of his life.

The sheik was Rabea al-Okaimi, of Al Jawf, the one who was nearly assassinated on day 88 of the program when he was ambushed by rival tribesmen. He is the one who, instead of figuring out ways to end tribal conflicts with the help of NDI and the United States, found himself in the middle of a war that destroyed houses, emptied villages, caused numerous injuries to his fighters and cost seven people their lives. Who, as Saleh was ending NDI's program, worked out a truce in which his tribe would receive 44 assault rifles from the other side as payment for the attempt on his life, and then agreed to accept only 20, even though it was a breach of tribal law, because he didn't want the fighting to resume.

And who was now taking temporary refuge in Saudi Arabia, unaware of what had happened to the tribal program as he described what it had meant in his corner of Al Jawf:

"I could tell my people the world has not forgotten us. They are paying attention."

And added: "Until now, I have not seen any results. But I still have hope."

How do six months begin?

"Let me congratulate you for the courage and the vision to start this," Robin Madrid had said on the morning of June 15.

How do six months end?

"Oh my," she said as Dec. 15 drew to a close. "Oh my."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company