The New York Times reported Sunday that the United States will likely issue a visa to (ex-?) Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ostensibly to receive treatment for lingering injuries suffered during a June 3rd assassination attempt.
There are two ways to look at the decision. Viewed positively, the U.S. is helping to remove the disruptive Saleh from Yemen during a volatile transition period – his stay would likely keep him abroad during the planned February presidential election. Ideally, Saleh would leave after receiving medical attention and make no attempt to turn America into a permanent home (some in the Yemeni press report he is preparing to move to Abu Dhabi).
Viewed negatively, the U.S. is welcoming an autocrat who presided over the killing of hundreds of protesters during an 11-month span and represents an egregious miscalculation caused by Washington’s viewing Yemen through counterterrorism-colored shades. Never mind that Saleh has a history of manipulating the U.S. for his own benefit.
Even considering the positive U.S. intentions, such a move seems prohibitively risky in the midst of the Arab Spring. Why should the U.S. host an embattled Arab autocrat at what is perhaps the least popular time in a century to be an Arab autocrat?
The move is not so surprising considering that the U.S. has been gunning for a managed power transition in Yemen ever since the first signs of Saleh’s weakness. With an eye toward Al Qaeda, the intent is to avoid uncertainties like those seen in Egypt and more starkly in Libya. This commitment led to avoiding publicly disgracing the Yemeni government but has often come at a steep public relations price among the Yemeni public.
When protesters started getting shot last winter, the U.S. called for restraint on all sides and an investigation of those responsible, even though only one side was shooting and the government’s role was well known. Then the U.S. pushed through the GCC initiative despite its deeply unpopular immunity clause for Saleh.
Most incredibly, the American ambassador to Yemen publicly characterized a recent protest march, where thousands of Yemenis hiked peaceably on foot from Taiz to Sana’a calling for Saleh to be put on trial (and thus challenging the immunity granted by the GCC initiative), as not peaceful, but rather a deliberate provocation of government security forces. Some protesters were killed by security forces upon arrival in the capital. To make such an assessment publicly is an unforced gaffe.
Taken together, this behavior exhibits a pattern of misreading the temperature of the Yemeni public in both words and deeds for the sake of a slow, predictable transition of power. If the New York Times report is true, allowing Saleh access to the U.S. is, simply put, consistent with the policy of gently easing him out of office.
However, U.S. policymakers must realize that they cannot indefinitely press their luck vis-à-vis the Yemeni public; actions aimed at easing the transition do not occur in a vacuum. The Yemeni public is not by default anti-American and they looked to the U.S. to support the democratic reform movement when it began last winter, but making so many concessions in the name of a structured power transfer risks losing the trust of the Yemeni people just as the U.S. takes steps to give them more democratic power.
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