There is currently a debate over whether the US should have given Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh a visa to receive medical treatment. A lot of folks who know Yemen better than me say it was a mistake. But Dana Stuster, who also knows Yemen better than me, just published this piece arguing it was the right move.
Stuster contends that while the GCC deal is bad (it gave him immunity before he actually left power) and while the decision might anger Yemenis protesting in the streets, ultimately giving Saleh a visa makes sense because the US still needs him. Yes, he is on his way out the door, but he still has his foot stuck in the door jam. We need to convince him to kindly move it. And that means staying on his good side by allowing him medical treatment in the States.
I agree with Stuster that at this point it’s too late to lament the GCC deal. We backed it for months and now it’s too late to change it. I’m less sanguine about the potential backlash against the US. Stuster is right that Yemen will not be a democracy anytime soon, but there are other ways beyond institutional politics in which this decision can come back to bite us. After all, the Iranians did storm our embassy in Tehran after we gave the Shah medical treatment, just as we’re giving it now to Saleh. It’s not a completely analogous situation, of course, but there is widespread anti-Americanism in Yemeni society already.
Still, I am largely convinced by Stuster's arguments. There is nothing just about Saleh getting the best medical treatment in the world after what he has done to his people. But ultimately, I believe it is better to secure the justice of the future than to remedy the injustices of the past. If that means we have to give Saleh a visa, that means we pinch our noses and give him a visa.
More generally, this debate is part of a larger one over how the US can promote democracy in the region. Currently, a lot of our democracy promotion tools operate under the assumption of evolutionary change. Monitoring elections, funding parliaments, supporting journalists, and trainings activists are all important activities, but they do not carry the immediacy necessary to tip the balance during revolutionary moments.
Different tools are needed during mass upheavals. Creative diplomacy is essential. Think asking Twitter to postpone its routine maintenance during the 2009 Green Movement protests in Iran. Or think having every single US military service member calling every single Egyptian soldier they know from years of joint training to implore them to not shoot the protesters in Tahrir last year.
In the case of Yemen, revolutionary diplomacy might require us to do something much more unpleasant than calling Twitter or Egyptian soldiers on the phone. It may mean we have to give Saleh immunity and medical treatment. Heck, I’d give Saleh a mansion in the Hamptons with a million dollar monthly allowance if it meant Yemen could become a secure, democratic country.
The questions I have to leave for actual Yemen experts are how much should the US risk to help achieve a secure, democratic Yemen? And how does the US best help Yemen become that secure, democratic country given our risk threshold? If it means trying Saleh in Yemen or the ICC for crimes against humanity, then someone go get the gavel. But if it means doing whatever it takes to get Saleh out of the country, then so be it.