Why Yemen May Be Slow to Aid U.S. Bombing Probe

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The Yemenis aren't being accused of stonewalling, as such, but there appears to have been a shoe-challenging case of foot-dragging on the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. Speaking off the record, U.S. officials have complained that the Yemenis have limited their access to sites containing possible evidence and barred them from interviews with suspects and witnesses. This despite President Clinton's personal intervention last week imploring Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to allow a "genuine joint investigation."

The Yemeni attitude naturally sets off alarm bells for U.S. law enforcement personnel who recall their deeply frustrating experiences with the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Despite diplomatic pressure from Washington, the Saudis never allowed U.S. personnel access to the suspects they tried and summarily executed for their part in carrying out the truck bomb attack that killed 19 U.S. military personnel. U.S. investigators, however, have been quick to point out that the Yemeni experience has been nothing like the stonewalling by the Saudis; only that it has fallen well short of what has been requested.

Yemeni reticence, though, may hold some important indicators of the pressures weighing on Arab governments that maintain alliances with the U.S. right now. During testimony to the House and Senate Armed Services committees last week, the U.S. commander for the Middle East and Gulf, General Tommy Franks, apprised legislators of some brutal facts about the region: 19 of its 25 states were concerned areas of high risk to U.S. personnel. This despite the fact that the governments of most of these states are U.S. allies. And earlier this week, it was reported that the U.S. Navy has decided temporarily to avoid the Suez Canal, instead rerouting vessels around the southern tip of Africa to reach the Gulf. This was a troubling indicator of the state of the Pax Americana that has prevailed in the region since the Gulf War. After all, the whole point of deploying your navy in distant waters is the projection of power — it sends a message to your enemies that you are not to be trifled with. Rerouting them from a waterway bordered by no states formally hostile to the U.S. suggests that Washington's allies in the region are having trouble maintaining Pax Americana.

Then again, the Navy's decision may be a recognition of a reality that politicians may be slower to acknowledge: that formal political alliances with moderate regimes in the Arab world don't necessarily make them safe for U.S. personnel. Israel is the only real democracy in the region, and most of the pro-Western moderate regimes on whose good offices both Israel and the West rely are not particularly reflective of the feelings of their citizenry — and if they were, it's questionable whether they would be either aligned with Washington or at peace with Israel. So, despite the choices of moderate governments in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, terrorist groups find plenty of fertile ground in which to operate despite the best efforts of local intelligence services to hound them out.

And it's not as if the governments are easily able to rally the population against the terrorists, either. That may be why Yemen and Saudi Arabia have been reluctant to allow the U.S. too visible a role in the investigation process, despite having been the target of attack. To be sure, no government anywhere in the world is easily convinced to allow foreign law enforcement personnel to operate on its territory, but this may be more than just a routine sovereignty issue.

For one thing, the Yemeni might be reluctant to see the investigation stray into uncomfortable areas. While President Salah has worked hard against the odds to close down Islamist opposition groups supportive of Osama Bin Ladenís global anti-U.S. jihad, the fact remains that his government had previously relied on some of those same groups to help him win a 1994 civil war against leftist opposition in the south. But there may be more immediate reasons for shutting the U.S. out of the police work: With the Islamist opposition groups using the specter of increasing U.S. involvement in Yemen to scare up support, the last thing the government can afford to do is be seen to be giving free rein to U.S. investigators.

Yemen, like a number of other moderate Arab regimes, might now be finding themselves circumscribed in their friendship with the U.S. for fear of rousing the ire of their more hostile citizenry. The latest Israeli-Palestinian violence has prompted fierce demonstrations throughout the Arab world against both Israel and the U.S. And that may leave not only Yemen, but most of Washington's moderate Arab allies, in no rush to publicly proclaim themselves U.S.-friendly.