SANAA, Yemen -- The scene in Yemen's capital Sept. 20 was almost embarrassing, according to those who looked on: John Brennan, the influential White House counterterrorism advisor, was trying to leave Sanaa after a fly-in, fly-out visit with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh about his country's burgeoning al Qaeda branch.
But Saleh was too busy pleading for U.S. cash to let the 25-year CIA veteran drive away, according to people familiar with Brennan's visit. Clutching Brennan by the arm, Yemen's burly president of 30-plus years stood at the open door of Brennan's limo, pressing his appeals that the United States pay up now, not later, on the $300 million that Barack Obama's administration is planning to give Yemen over the near term to help it combat al Qaeda. (Someone finally eased shut the limo door on the Yemeni leader, allowing Brennan to get away, witnesses said.)
And everyone knows what will happen if Saleh doesn't get more free money, because it's a threat Saleh and his officials use at every opportunity to demand international aid: Without an urgent and unending infusion of foreign cash, it will lose its fight against the aggressive Saudi and Yemeni offshoots of al Qaeda that Saleh long allowed -- though he doesn't admit that part of the story -- to make their home here in Yemen.
"No friend of Yemen can stand by when the economy of that state comes close to collapse ... or when the authority of the government is challenged by extremism, by violence, by crime, or by corruption," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sept. 24 in New York, striking the spunky, this-is-Yemen's-finest-hour theme at a "Friends of Yemen" conference of officials of roughly 30 countries gathered together to brainstorm propping up the Arab world's poorest and most chaotic country despite Yemen's best efforts to collapse.
Yemeni Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar echoed the World War II theme when it came to hinting what kind of money international donors might want to drop on the dresser on the way out -- that is, if they want Yemen to fight al Qaeda.
"Certainly, we need a Marshall Plan for supporting Yemen. I believe the amount needed is around 40 billion dollars," Mujawar told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. (Yemen's annual GDP is a mere $27 billion.)
Reviewing Yemen's recent history suggests a different idea: The big problem with Yemen isn't al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nor is it the Zaidi Shiite rebellion in Yemen's north or the separatist movement in Yemen's south. It isn't the 40 percent unemployment. It isn't the near one-in-10 childhood mortality rate or the malnutrition that causes more than half the country's children to be stunted. Although all those factors exist, tragically, in this hospitable, ancient, and beautiful country, and all are grave, none of them is Yemen's main problem.
No, the big problem with Yemen is Yemen's president -- Saleh.