Our Man in Yemen

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Byline: Kevin Peraino and Michael Hirsh; With John Barry in Washington

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a loose cannon once dubbed Little Saddam--and a pivotal ally in our war on terror.

Ali Abdullah Saleh is not an especially lovable ally. Once known as "Little Saddam"--whom he hero--worshiped back in the day--Saleh is the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East after Libya's Muammar Kaddafi. During interviews, the Yemeni president slouches in his chair like a bored schoolboy, anxiously knocking his knees together as a question is asked. If he thinks he has said something particularly witty, Saleh smirks and flashes a wink at his aides to make sure they have heard it. Otherwise Saleh, a self-styled field marshal, doesn't try very hard to please anyone, even visiting American officials, who control about $70 million in aid for Yemen's military. It's a budget that could soon be at least doubled, and he will continue to do as he pleases, whatever the U.S.'s advice happens to be. Saleh has a standard response when asked about cooperation with Washington. "We're not your employees!" he barks.

Fair enough. No Middle Eastern leader can afford to look like an American stooge, and a little theatrical insolence goes a long way in this part of the world. The last thing the Obama administration wants is another Pakistan or Afghanistan, where local resentment of America's tactics in fighting jihadists has seemed to create more jihadists. Still, Saleh is caught in a harsh spotlight now--one that Barack Obama plans to keep trained on him despite the risk that the Yemeni leader will lose credibility among his own people. U.S. officials have been surprised by what they've discovered about the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Yemen in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt by a Nigerian student who says he was trained and equipped there. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as this offshoot is called, is linked directly to the "core" group in Pakistan and it is now "one of the most lethal" affiliates, White House counterterrorism coordinator John Brennan said at a news conference. "We know there have been plenty of communications between FATA [the tribal regions in Pakistan] and Yemen," said another senior administration official who was authorized to speak only anonymously.

As a result, the smart-alecky antics of Ali Abdullah Saleh have begun to seriously grate on Washington. Saleh's U.S. critics point out that while his government occasionally cracks down, it has been hopelessly ineffective at keeping Al Qaeda from infiltrating the country--and possibly even Yemen's own security services. And as Yemen's economic situation gets more desperate--thanks in part to the Saleh government's corruption--Al Qaeda's presence in the country is growing. What's worse, some of the men around Saleh occasionally seem to be encouraging the militants: a 2006 prison break that reinvigorated Al Qaeda's local operations was considered to have been an inside job, though no evidence linked it directly to Saleh. Hawks in Congress like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman breathlessly repeat warnings about Yemen going the way of Iraq and Afghanistan, destined to become "tomorrow's war."

The problem Obama has is that if Saleh is an SOB, he's America's SOB. There just isn't anyone else Washington can rely on in Yemen, which is one reason why in September, Obama sent Saleh a letter pledging full U.S. support. A poor relation of Saudi Arabia that sits at the southern tip of the peninsula, Yemen is, as one British official puts it, "Afghanistan by the Sea." The nation is a topographical mix of desert and savage mountains, with a xenophobic tribal culture. Hopelessly fractious, divided by seven local dialects (Saleh, when he gets excited, will often abandon standard Arabic and lapse into his native Sanani), it is an urgent nation--building problem as much as a terrorist haven, experts say. Saleh is beset by an exploding population, crushing unemployment, an acute water shortage--Yemen's cities have water for only a couple of hours a day--and oil output expected to dry up in less than a decade. …