WASHINGTON — When it was revealed that the Nigerian man suspected of trying to bomb an American airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas had once passed through Yemen, the U.S. wasted little time dispatching Gen. David Petraeus to the chaotic Arab nation.

Counterterrorism experts have long cautioned that the U.S. ignored Yemen at its peril, but now the head of the U.S. Central Command was suddenly needed to put a very public face on the effort there. Petraeus carried with him a promise that the U.S. would double counterterrorism funding for Yemen, and he persuaded the government in San‘a to promise to crack down on the Islamic extremists it had long tolerated — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group that backed suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Yet experts on the region say that Washington’s response was misguided and offers little hope for tangible benefit.

“This is focused entirely on the U.S. domestic audience,” said Joost R. Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “They want to see action after the plane incident, that’s what it’s about. And so they need to go stomping into Yemen in order to show the American public that the Obama administration means business. But what it does in Yemen is an entirely different matter, and that’s the danger. So, it’s a real dilemma. There’s obviously no easy solution to it.”

Yemenis have never been particularly anti-American, at least relative to attitudes in the region. But Yemenis across the country have been rebelling against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime for several years.

Now forced to position itself as a friend to the dictator, Washington risks making more enemies than friends among the Yemeni population. Increasing military financing and training — and even doubling it to $140 million, still a relatively modest amount — will only buy so much security. Any military presence beyond that, even unseen Hellfire-armed drones, could further destabilize an already failing country and risk driving more Yemenis into the arms of the al-Qaida extremists, experts said.

“If it’s not done well, it really does risk fueling an insurgency where none was,” said Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert and political science professor at the University of Richmond, in Virginia.

In the week since Petraeus left the country, Saleh and his defense and foreign ministry leaders have had to simultaneously defend his unpopular alliance with the United States and downplay exactly how much help they’ve accepted from Americans to conduct attacks inside Yemen.

President Barack Obama said in a People magazine interview to be published Friday that he had no intention of putting U.S. troops on the ground in Yemen, and one of the country’s most influential clerics, Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, warned that the people would reject any foreign occupation.

“We think this is the priority and the responsibility of our security forces and the army,” said Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi, in a CNN interview, during which he also rejected the notion of U.S. troops in Yemen.

Even in public relations, the U.S. has little choice but to capitulate.

“The Americans have to be very careful to allow the governments that they support to not only deny that support, but publicly oppose it. Because their survival is at stake,” said Hiltermann, who criticized the Petraeus visit as heavy-handed.

For those steeped in the region, there is little reason to believe more openness will come anytime soon.

“You’re never going to get popular support,” Hiltermann said. “You may talk to people who say we support that, very quietly, but there is no popular support for American intervention in the region, period.”

Indeed, since mid-December, three missile strikes have targeted terrorists in Yemen, and media reports suggested they were carried out jointly by Yemen and the U.S. However, none have been confirmed to have hit their targets, and Yemen has denied the U.S. was involved. Accounts in Yemen reported civilians were among 120 killed on December 17 in the first strike and follow-up raids.

“That is just bound to stoke local resentment of their own government, as well as our own,” Carapico said.

For her, the episode hinges on being a historic lost opportunity.

“I think for many years, the Yemeni government and even the Yemeni people wanted to be an ally of the United States,” she said. “Now I think that Yemenis are suddenly wary of the U.S. in a way that they haven’t been in the past.”

Yemen was once a quaint jewel of the Middle East, said Carapico, who first visited the country in the early 1970s. But now the country is “falling in to an abyss” with rebellions in the north and south, 35 percent unemployment estimates, a 50 percent illiteracy rate, a plummeting economy, and cities actually running out of water. According to the United Nations, 45 percent of the 23 million Yemenis live on less than $2 per day.

More troubling, Saleh’s regime has a reputation for “shooting first and asking questions later,” she said. Human Rights Watch last month accused Saleh of creating a “climate of fear” in his own country, where his forces have allegedly fired into crowds of political demonstrators.

If the Pentagon begins pumping more military equipment, training and intelligence coordination to Saleh, Carapico worries his regime of loyal family members could turn around and use that assistance to further their stranglehold on the Yemeni population.

“I’m not sure we need to help them bomb villages,” she said.

At this point, even showering the population with badly-needed economic aid may do little to turn idle Yemenis into American allies.

“There’s no amount of aid that can cure 35 percent unemployment,” Carapico said. “Certainly not in the short run, not enough to satisfy these 300 guys, or certainly not to stop them from turning into 3,000 guys.”

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