Washington and Sanaa (1986-90)
Glory is fleeting. It’s great while it lasts. And you sure miss it when it goes. This is true even when it’s a fairly modest sort of glory. I know.
At the very beginning of January 1986, a book that I had spent three years writing was published. The title of the book was Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula. If you didn’t happen to read the book back then, I wouldn’t bother with it now. Among its many other effects, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the instant obsolescence of virtually all previously published books about Soviet foreign policy–including, most unfortunately, my own.
Actually, the book became partly out of date less than two weeks after it was published. For on January 13, 1986, there began a short, sharp civil war between rival factions of the Marxist-Leninist party ruling South Yemen in which 10,000 people were reportedly killed while at least another 10,000 fled the country (including South Yemen’s president, ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad).
Russia and Arabia didn’t exactly make it onto The New York Times bestseller list. But the coincidence of its publication right when this conflict took place led to a degree of publicity for the book which it probably would not have received otherwise. While conflict is a tragedy for the people involved in it, the outbreak of war often results in immediate and insistent demand for commentary from writers and scholars knowledgeable about the region where it is taking place.
I appeared on “The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.” I was quoted in several newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. The Washington Post ran a piece I wrote rebutting a column by Jeane Kirkpatrick claiming the Soviets had orchestrated the whole conflict.
When the South Yemeni civil war ended in early February 1986, so did the media attention I had been receiving. I thought that life would then return to normal until the next time there was a crisis in Yemen. But it turned out that my wife was not the only person who remembered my brief media fame. Somehow or other, I had also been noticed by Vice President George Bush.
Bush was planning a trip during the first part of April to four Arabian Peninsula countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and North Yemen. I was one of six scholars invited to meet with him in a roundtable discussion of issues in the region before he departed.
The meeting was held in the Old Executive Office Building. The participants gathered before the arrival of the Vice President. We six scholars sat at a long table in the middle of the room where Bush would also sit. The other scholars present were a former ambassador to several Muslim countries, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a well known analyst of military affairs in the Gulf, a high powered attorney who had previously played a key role in various Middle East negotiations, and a former White House aide. All of them were currently either at think tanks or law firms. I was by far the youngest and least experienced member of the group.
There were also chairs placed along the walls of the room where staff members from the Vice President’s office and the National Security Council sat. A lady from the NSC staff came up to me before the meeting started. She told me that if I believed that American foreign policy should pay more attention to the Yemens, I should be sure to say so. (There were two Yemens back then; there’s only one now.) “This is no time to be shy!” she said encouragingly.
Bush arrived somewhat late; his previous meeting had run longer than anticipated. Except for me, he knew every person in the room. What struck me about him most during the course of the meeting was that he possessed an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of international relations.
The meeting began with each scholar giving a three-minute presentation on what he thought should be important considerations for Bush on the upcoming trip. I was amazed that each speaker bluntly told the Vice President to “do this” or “say that” when he got to the region. I decided that I would follow their example when it was my turn.
During my three minutes, I quickly recounted the convoluted tale of the international relations of the two Yemens. A border war erupted between Marxist South Yemen and non-Marxist North Yemen in early 1979. As the South was getting the best of the battle, the Carter Administration announced an emergency shipment of half a billion dollars worth of weapons to the North. Because impoverished North Yemen could not pay for them, its rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia, agreed to do so. The U.S. transported the arms to the Saudis who would then transfer them to North Yemen.
When the border war between the two Yemens ended three weeks after it had begun, the Saudis stopped shipping the American arms they had bought to the North. However, a Marxist insurgency against the North soon got under way which the South supported. The non-Marxist government of the North begged both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for more arms to fight the insurgents. The Saudis, however, would not help them; they apparently did not think the insurgency was very serious and feared that if the North acquired more weapons, it might conceivably threaten Saudi Arabia. For its part, the U.S. would not send arms directly to the North for fear of offending the Saudis–our primary allies in the region.
Becoming desperate for weapons to fight its internal opponents, the North Yemeni government turned to the Soviets for military assistance–and received it. Why the Soviets helped the non-Marxist North Yemeni government fight its Marxist opponents (which Moscow was also backing via South Yemen) is, like so many things Moscow did, still not clear. Perhaps the Kremlin was uncertain of the outcome and decided to hedge its bets by backing both parties. That way, it would be on the winning side no matter who won. But whatever Moscow’s reasoning (or lack of it) may have been, the North Yemeni government successfully employed its Soviet weaponry to defeat the Soviet/South Yemeni-backed insurgency by mid-1982.
I concluded my statement to Bush by telling him that while almost nobody in the U.S. paid attention to these events, the memory of them would be quite sharp among the North Yemeni government officials he would meet with. I also suggested that if a Marxist insurgency against the North Yemeni government ever broke out again, we could hardly count on Moscow to help defeat it for us next time. The U.S., I advised, should provide direct economic and military assistance to North Yemen. While the Saudis might not like this, I suggested that such a policy would serve both Saudi and American interests. A strong non-Marxist North Yemen was certainly a better alternative to a Yemen united under Marxist auspices.
After our presentations, there was a general debate among the scholars which Bush also participated in. There were strong differences on several issues among the scholars, but they were stated in quiet, civil tones. Everyone was on his best behavior.
Almost all the other scholars disagreed with me about my policy recommendations concerning Yemen. They cited the urgent need “not to offend Saudi Arabia” and pointed out, gratuitously I thought, that Saudi Arabia was a far more important country to the U.S. than the two Yemens combined. I argued that it was precisely Saudi Arabia’s importance that made neighboring Yemen important too.
The debate about North Yemen ended when Bush himself intervened. I remember that he looked at me and said, “I think you’re right. I think we have to do something for North Yemen to make sure that the Marxists don’t take it over.” (Although it seems hard to believe now, we used to worry about Marxists taking over countries back then.)
The NSC lady beamed at me from the sidelines. After the session was over, she told me I had done a good job. Someone else from the NSC staff predicted that I might become a “regular” at Bush’s foreign policy briefing sessions. But I never was invited back (although Bush did send me a nice thank you note). The fact that I had met with him at all, however, led many people to conclude that I “played a role” in formulating American foreign policy toward the region.
Shortly afterward, I suddenly found myself in great demand with all sorts of people who wanted a summary of what took place at the meeting: various offices at State, Defense, and other U.S. government agencies, the media, and several embassies in Washington. The Yemenis in particular thought I was highly important.
During the next couple of years, I received a stream of Yemeni visitors asking me to pass on messages for them to Vice President Bush, or to arrange meetings for them with him or lesser luminaries such as the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. Some came with warnings that the North Yemeni government was moving too close to Moscow and presented me with elaborate coup plans they had worked out for the U.S. to put them and their friends in power. They never seemed to doubt that I could arrange for the U.S. government to back them; it was only a question of whether I would do so.
Admittedly, some of these people were a little odd. But even high level Yemeni officials and politicians saw me as a conduit to Bush. When I visited North Yemen in February 1988, everyone I met with seemed to know about my meeting with Bush almost two years previously. They all earnestly sought my opinion about Bush’s prospects in the upcoming presidential election in November. Because his visit to Yemen as Vice President had gone well in 1986, they assumed that North Yemen and the U.S. would practically become allies if he was elected President.
Among those whom I met on this trip was ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad–the ex-president of Marxist South Yemen who had to flee his country during the 1986 civil war there. He had been told in advance about my meeting with Bush and had concluded that I was Bush’s emissary. He let me know that he would be happy to accept American military assistance as part of the Reagan Doctrine (the policy of supporting the opponents of pro-Soviet Marxist Third World regimes) so that he could toss out his former colleagues who had ousted him from South Yemen in 1986. The more I insisted that I had no connection with the U.S. government or Bush, the more convinced he became that I had.
But the high point of Yemeni expectations about my influence came the day after Bush’s election to the presidency when I received a phone call from one of North Yemen’s top diplomats.
“I just called,” he said breathlessly, “to congratulate you on Bush’s election!”
“Thank you,” I replied graciously.
“And the next time you talk with him, give him my regards!”
I promised that I would. He seemed to think that Bush and I were on the phone daily discussing the latest developments in Yemen.
But all good things must come to an end. Yemeni-American ties did in fact improve after Bush became president, if only briefly. As the reader undoubtedly recalls, the high point in the relationship came in January 1990 when the North Yemeni president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, paid a state visit to the United States at the invitation of President Bush. (You don’t remember? Don’t worry–I won’t tell anyone.) But no one on either the American or the Yemeni side called me for advice or assistance in furthering the relationship. Nor was I invited to any of the dinners or receptions given in honor of President Salih’s visit to Washington. The two governments had apparently concluded that they could manage their relationship quite well without me, thank you. Sic transit gloria.
Originally published as one of “Two Essays” in Exquisite Corpse, #10 (Fall 2001/Winter 2002).