JERUSALEM — The USS Cole is one of the US Navy's most sophisticated warships, but its pit stop in Yemen last week was part of a diplomatic mission - an expression of a controversial strategy called "engagement."
The idea, warmly embraced by President Clinton, is that a government should cozy up to its potential adversaries in the hope of winning them over.
Indeed, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh hardly seems a likely friend of the United States. He is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's warmest political supporter, his country has long been a home away from home for a variety of militant groups, and his brand of politics is a good distance short of fully democratic.
But President Saleh has benefited from US overtures initiated by the Pentagon's former commander in the region and supported by Mr. Clinton, who welcomed Saleh to the White House in April.
Although it is not yet clear who attacked the Cole, much less whether the apparent bombers had more than a passing interest in Yemen, officials and analysts in Washington are asking whether the country was an appropriate candidate for engagement.
"To go into a place that was considered so dangerous - although it has improved recently - one has to question whether or not the justification was correct," says Stanley Bedlington, a former Central Intelligence Agency official with experience in the Middle East and counterterrorism.
In recent years, the US official most identified with improving ties with Yemen has been Gen. Anthony Zinni, who until recently served as commander in chief of the Pentagon's Central Command, which includes the Middle East. Yemen occupies a relatively strategic position to the Red Sea.
Although other US officials warned against the strategy, citing the potential danger to US interests in Yemen, Marine General Zinni pursued engagement by visiting the country four times, arranging for US forces to aid in a demining program, and establishing the refueling stops for US warships.
"I thought we needed to do more engagement," Zinni told The Washington Post on Friday. "If we do nothing and write these countries off, they are going to become massive sanctuaries" for militant groups.
But Mr. Bedlington, echoing other critics of the Pentagon's regional commanders, says "militaries should not be permitted to make foreign policy on their own, as Zinni appears to have done in this case."
Yemen has gained its reputation as a dangerous place because it has already been a sanctuary for militants. For decades Palestinian extremists have found refuge there, as have militants from Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco in more recent years.
Following the Afghan war, militants who fought the Soviets with US funding but whose brand of Islam turned them against the US, also found a temporary home in Yemen.
One longtime Yemen watcher, a journalist who declined to be quoted by name, says President Saleh has practiced a two-faced foreign policy, reaping financial assistance and improved credibility from his improved US relations and simultaneously subverting US interests.
"Yemen is probably the mostly deeply conservative Arab state," this journalist says. "They are completely opposed to US policy in the region." He says many Yemenis are at least sympathetic to the views of Osama bin Laden, whom the US has accused of masterminding deadly attacks on two US embassies in Africa in 1998 and whose father comes from Yemen.
But a senior Yemeni official reached by phone yesterday, who also declined to be quoted by name, says his country "has a consistent policy of condemning, rejecting, and doing everything possible to fight terrorism in the region."
Even Abdullah Al-Asnag, a former foreign minister of North Yemen and a political opponent of Saleh, credits the president with "dismantling" militant groups. But Mr. Al-Asnag notes that Saleh maintains a strong tie with Iraq's leader "in case he needs it at a later date."
The country's mountainous regions, porous land borders, and lengthy coastline have made it difficult for President Saleh's government to figure out just who is where. "The Yemeni government doesn't aim to control all its territory in every detail," says Paul Dresch, an anthropologist and Yemen expert at Britain's Oxford University.
But Mr. Dresch also discounts the possibility that the government would actively support militants inclined to violence against the US. "One would wish the Yemeni government would put a bit more pressure on these fellows, to clean them out more thoroughly, but I can't see major government figures supporting them directly."
Staff researcher Alan Messmer contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society