When It Makes Sense to Give a Dictator Medical Sanctuary: View

Should Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, be allowed to come to the U.S. for medical treatment? Yes. But with one big condition: That he resign first and not go home again.

Offering medical harbor to dictators can come with a price, as the hostage crisis that followed the Carter administration’s 1979 decision to admit the ailing and deposed Shah of Iran so painfully demonstrated. But Saleh is no Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and Yemen is no Iran. In fact, a more useful analogy can be found in Tunisia.

When the first of the Arab revolts took hold in January in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia gave refuge to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Some Tunisians protested at the time. Still, the offer prevented Ben Ali from digging in and killing more citizens. Today, Tunisians seem to have moved past their anger about his safe landing.

Yemenis are already protesting the idea of the U.S. admitting Saleh, whose forces have responded violently to dissent. The anger will probably grow if the president makes the trip, at least officially to receive care for burns and wounds from an assassination attempt in June.

But there are reasons to believe that the dissatisfaction will be neither monolithic nor permanent. Saleh is not the single focal point of unrest in the country; Yemen is splintered along tribal and geographic lines. And Saleh’s ties to the U.S., which deepened only in 2009, aren’t as domestically toxic as were those of the shah, who had been a close ally for decades, or even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who left power in February.

Although Saleh lacks legitimacy, coaxing him to leave for good won’t be easy. He has shown a strong reluctance to part with power. He reneged on a deal with opposition groups: immunity from prosecution in exchange for turning over the presidency and allowing elections. And, after going to Saudi Arabia for post-assassination-attempt medical care (with an expectation he would stay out of Yemen), he abruptly returned home, further inflaming a chaotic situation.

For Saleh, coming to the U.S. has to mean staying here -- or at least staying out of Yemen. His departure won’t solve the country’s problems, but it also won’t imperil U.S. interests or make a shaky situation that much worse. It might even give the country’s battling factions the halting opportunity to come to terms.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.