On the first day of his three-day trip, Saleh got a taste of just how much things had changed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed him that Yemen was being suspended from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a new funding organization that Bush had established to tie aid to reform. The cut would cost Yemen $20 million in aid. Ill-prepared for the meeting, the Yemeni president could only sputter in frustration as Rice rapped him over the knuckles on corruption and lack of reform. If nothing changed, Rice continued, the United States would not view Saleh as a legitimate candidate in the 2006 presidential election. Krajeski had been saying the same thing for months, but Saleh had never quite believed the United States was serious. Seemingly overnight, the United States had changed its rationale for foreign aid. Al Qaeda, the United States explained, was yesterday's problem.
The next day, Saleh had a meeting at World Bank headquarters, just a couple of blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. World Bank officials wasted little time. Yemen, they said, had regressed significantly on key indicators. As a result, the bank would be slashing aid to the country from $420 million to $280 million. Just like Rice, they cited widespread government corruption as the deciding factor.
Two days later, on the flight home, Saleh finally lost it, screaming at aides and firing his entire team of economic advisers within minutes of takeoff. The group of young, Western-educated English speakers couldn't wait to get back to Sanaa and away from their fuming boss. "It was horrible," one later recalled. "The longest plane ride of my entire life."
Weeks later, when Saleh had calmed down, he rehired most of them. "Do you really think that if Freedom House and the rest changed our ratings, it would make any difference?" he asked one of the young men, who, in the messy world of family politics, was related to Saleh's newest wife.
"Of course," the nervous aide responded. "That was the reason they cut it in the first place."
Saleh smiled and shook his head. "The Americans give money to who they want when they want."
The trip was a turning point in U.S.-Yemeni relations. By the beginning of 2006 -- as U.S. security aid dipped to a new low of $4.6 million -- the United States decided that al Qaeda in Yemen was no longer a threat and it could put its money and resources elsewhere. Absent al Qaeda, Yemen was just one more poor country.
But it wouldn't stay that way. On February 3, 2006 -- weeks after Saleh's disastrous Washington visit -- 23 al Qaeda suspects tunneled out of a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Sanaa and into a neighboring mosque, where they said their morning prayers and then walked out the front door to freedom. Just like that, al Qaeda was back. The escape was AQAP's genesis moment, the seminal event that birthed years of attacks.