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January 11, 2011

The last SecState visit to Yemen

As most of our readers surely know by now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise stop today in Yemen, a country of growing counter-terrorism concern to the United States. According to the State Department Historian's website, it was just the third visit to Yemen by a U.S. Secretary of State.

The last was by Secretary of State James A. Baker III on November 22, 1990. It's worth recalling.

I travelled extensively with Baker during that period, especially following Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, although I wasn't on this particular trip. (My Reuters colleague at the time, Alan Elsner, was on the flight and recounted it last year for Huffington Post).

Baker was trying to get the maximum possible support for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and he visited virtually every member at the time of the Security Council, including Yemen. As Elsner recounts, Baker warned Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (yes, he's still president now) that he risked $70 million in annual U.S. aid if he voted against the resolution.

When UN Security Council resolution 678 came up for a vote a week after the Baker visit, it got 12 votes. But Cuba and Yemen voted against, and China, which holds a veto as a permanent council member, abstained. Baker was reported to have told a Yemeni diplomat afterward, "That's the most expensive vote you ever cast."

Elsner, in his Huffington Post piece, quoted from Baker's memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy, about the SecState's reaction to the Yemeni UN ambassador's speech attacking the resolution and U.S. policy toward Iraq:

Baker wrote:  "I scribbled a quick note to Bob Kimmitt (a senior aide). 'Yemen's permanent rep. just enjoyed about $200 to $250 million worth of applause for that speech'." In a footnote, Baker explained that while Washington's aid amounted to around $70 million, other coalition partners and allies also had assistance programs which would now be affected.)

Of course, nations, as Lord Palmerston said, have no permanent friends or allies (the same could be said for enemies), just permanent interests. U.S. aid to Yemen increased significantly in fiscal year 2010 to about $67 million, and is due to increase in the current fiscal year to $106 million.

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

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