Allowing Yemen's Leader Saleh Medical Treatment in the U.S. Is a Dangerous Precedent

The news that the Obama administration has allowed Yemen's embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be admitted to a U.S. hospital flies in the face of the American principals that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been preaching on her stops around the world. It is in direct contradiction to President Barack Obama's expressions of support for Arab revolutionaries. Worst of all, it is another blunder in a history of missteps for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Once again, America has chosen a tyrannical dictator over his people.

The Arab Spring presented America with a historic opportunity to shift the paradigm away from being seen as the unjust (often evil) aggressor in the Middle East. This is a status we earned with our continued support of Israel and cemented with the War in Iraq. When Arab revolutionaries across the region rose up this spring, we were given a chance to start anew, to win the respect of young people across the Arab world and help them build lasting democratic institutions.

So far our record isn’t great. We botched a chance to improve our image with the Egyptian people (although given the complexity of the situation, barely so), hardly recognized the plight of the Bahrainis, and were well behind the eight ball in supporting the Tunisian revolution. Only in Libya did we engender ourselves to the people with the NATO mission.

That being said, inaction is not always wrong. Sometimes throwing support at protests or interfering in a country's internal affairs isn’t the prudent course of action, and often careful reticence is the best strategy.

But, blatantly siding with a totalitarian leader and ignoring the will of the people is almost always a recipe for disaster. By admitting Saleh to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, we have ensured continued animosity towards America in one of the world’s hot beds of terrorism.

For nine months, hundreds of thousands of Yemeni youth have taken to the streets demanding that their president of 40 years be brought to justice for suppressing their political freedoms. They want him to be held responsible for bringing their economy to the brink of collapse and put on trial for ordering the killing of hundreds of their fellow revolutionaries.

During most of the uprising, America kept quiet, offering little more than a modicum of support for the Yemeni people. Now, America has chosen to admit Saleh to the U.S. for medical purposes against the wishes of the Yemeni people. In doing so, our government can add yet another generation of Arabs/Middle Easterners who are angry at America. Perhaps most dangerously, the U.S. can count on an untold more to join the growing list of youth who are desperately poor, out of work, looking for meaning in life, and looking to enact revenge for being so abandoned: the perfect recipe for terrorism.

I am not suggesting that America’s decision to allow Saleh to seek medical treatment in the U.S. will turn hundreds of Yemenis into hard-line terrorists. But it’s just another move in a long line of ignorant decisions to abandon different democratic movements (especially youth groups) that over time add up and increase the Arab World’s animosity towards America. The last time the U.S. allowed a deeply unpopular authoritarian leader to escape justice and seek medical treatment in the country didn't turn out very well either. In 1979, Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to seek medical refuge in America. The decision enraged Iranian revolutionaries, who in response stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and set off the Iranian hostage crisis.

Why will this time be any differently? More importantly, what purpose does allowing Saleh into the country serve? Was the decision based on a sense of loyalty to our allies? Perhaps a belief that Saleh’s successor will continue helping us in the war on terrorism? The State Department should realize that with protests raging as strong as ever, the Yemeni leader is a person of the past, and any connected to his administration will soon be as well. 

Travel anywhere in the Middle East and nine-out-of-ten people will tell you they like American people, but hate our government. Add America’s decision to admit Saleh as another reason why. Let's just hope we don't get another crisis similar to what happened in Iran.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons