Why Hillary Clinton made a surprise stop in Yemen

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Yemen's president today, as well as locals at a town-hall meeting, in a bid to demonstrate that US support extends beyond counterterrorism.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (l.) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as she arrives at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Jan. 11. Clinton on Tuesday urged Yemen to step up cooperation with the United States as she made an unannounced visit here to shore up and repair damaged ties with a fragile and problematic ally that is fast becoming the main focus of American counterterrorism efforts.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid an unannounced visit to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa today, highlighting the country's rising importance in US foreign policy despite a sometimes rocky relationship.

Ms. Clinton, the first US secretary of State to visit Yemen in more than 20 years, addressed the precarious balance between Washington’s counterterrorism needs and the Yemen’s domestic agenda, on which terrorism is but one concern. The country is also facing quickly depleting oil and water reserves, the Arab world's poorest economy, a southern secessionist movement and weak rule of law in its rural areas.

Stopping for five hours on her regional tour around the Arabian Gulf, Clinton had lunch and an extended meeting with President Saleh, who has ruled the country for 32 years. But she also addressed opposition lawmakers and average Yemenis at a town-hall meeting.

RELATED: Five key members of Al Qaeda in Yemen

While she addressed joint US-Yemeni counterterrorism efforts, which many Yemenis distrust, she also sought to portray the US as taking an interest in Yemeni affairs beyond security cooperation, reported The New York Times.

Tiff over presidential term limits

Clinton’s high-security stopover in Sanaa comes during a diplomatic tiff between the two nations.

The relationship between the US and Yemen became frosty last month when Yemen's ruling party ignored US pressure to delay a parliamentary vote on constitutional amendments that would make it possible for Saleh to remain president for life.

All parties should “delay parliamentary action and to return to the negotiating table (to reach) an agreement that will be welcomed by the Yemeni people as well as Yemen’s friends,” said Mark Toner, acting State Department spokesman, in a Dec. 31 statement.

The US views good governance and national reconciliation between Yemen’s feuding political factions as an important facet of its counterterrorism strategy. While Yemen welcomed the doubling of US aid last year as concern grew about the operations of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it has sought to downplay the level of US involvement.

Yemen went forward with its parliamentary vote on the amendments the day after the State Department statement was released, and the official Saba news agency published a statement warning the United States from interference in Yemeni domestic affairs.

“US officials are aware that Yemen's parliament acts according to constitutional and legal rules, and that the determination of nations can't be decided through external desires,” reads the Saba report.

"The US call, which urged all Yemeni parties to postpone the parliamentary procedure and come back to the negotiating table, warning that going ahead with the procedure could worsen the situation, did not live up to diplomacy norms or wisdom.”

But Yemen's activities don't always measure up to diplomatic norms either.

Last month, Wikileaks revealed that the Yemeni government has diverted US counterterrorism aid to fight separatists, not Al Qaeda. While the US was aware of how its support was being used, American foreign aid to Yemen still more than doubled in 2010, after AQAP took responsibility for the failed underwear bomb plot aboard a Detroit-bound plane.

Why Clinton visited after tit-for-tat

The Yemeni government knows that counterterrorism is at the top of the US agenda in Yemen, and that it can get away with snubbing US desires for its domestic policy without too many consequences, says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Mr. Johnsen says that the fact that Clinton’s visit followed the tit-for-tat statements over the constitutional amendments shows "how important the US is treating its relationship with the Yemeni government at this time.”

The past two official visits by US secretaries of State to Yemen were made by James Baker in 1990 and William Rogers in 1972.

RELATED: Five key members of Al Qaeda in Yemen

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