Photo credit: AP | Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, Yemen. (Dec. 24, 2011)

Yemen rarely makes the front page of The New York Times, but today it did. The seesaw political succession game underway in Yemen has seen President Ali Abdullah Salih’s head bobbing up and down in the power vacuum like a bobblehead doll in the hands of a Little Leaguer on opening day in Yankee Stadium. According to the article, Salih requested a visa to receive medical attention at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian hospital. Why it is not sufficient to return to Saudi Arabia, where he first underwent surgery and medical attention for major burns and other complications, is not clear. To complicate matters, and Salih has a knack for complicating matters, Salih told the Yemeni public in a recent televised address that he was not seeking medical treatment in the United States but simply wanted to allow the political process to evolve with him on the sidelines.

The Statue of Liberty still holds the beacon of hope aloft. So what does Salih hope to get from this visit. The Obama administration is keen to insist that Salih is welcome only for medical assistance, not for refuge. There is a glaring precedent that urges such caution: when Jimmy Carter allowed the former Shah of Iran entry to the United States for treatment, the pre-nuclear revolutionaries back in Iran went ballistic and stormed the U.S. Embassy. The rest, as they say, is history, but not the kind one likes to repeat.

So there are several unanswered questions that make this more than just a trip to see the doctor. First, does Salih need to come to a hospital here or is he no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia, or even France where he has long enjoyed visiting? I recognize the excellence of Columbia Presbyterian (my own doctor is affiliated there and my son was born there), but are Salih’s symptoms so severe that this is the only venue? A second question is one that plagues all interpretation of Salih’s political motivations: is there some scenario in his mind where he thinks he can convince officials in the United States to let him back in some kind of power to continue the fight against Al-Qaida? He has claimed that after he steps down he will join the opposition in Yemen. Not so likely. And what about his personal wealth which has basically been looted from the country he lorded over for three decades? Not surprisingly, there are several million Yemenis who think that belongs to the commonwealth rather than the corruptly accumulated rulerwealth.

Democracies always have a moral dilemma when it comes to dealing with dictators, especially those who claim, against all observable evidence, to have been elected with due democratic process. Should the world’s self-proclaimed beacon of democracy put out the welcome mat for a symbol of oppression and corruption? Politically, this is a Catch-22 for President Obama. Whatever is decided, his Tea Party naysayers are sure to say that he did the wrong thing. I can imagine Newt Gingrich casually suggesting, as a historian of course, that we should let him in, lock him up at Guantanamo and boil him in oil (the shariah way) after he is found guilty in a military tribunal. Governor Perry would probably add that hanging is too good for him, that there is a hospital in Texas that would be glad to deal with him, and some third forgettable thing. Ron Paul would no doubt welcome him to join the GOP debate team in the next Fox News forum. Perhaps Obama would be smart to only let Salih receive medical treatment in Honolulu, since his opponents don’t view Hawaii as part of the United States any way.

Now that the Dicksonian ghost of Christmas past has passed, Scrooge needs to be replaced by Machiavelli. This is not the time for making a moral stand on punishing dictators. American foreign policy has a long pragmatic history, not the purist one of myth, where we deal with whoever we need to at the moment. Thus, Roosevelt and Churchill sat down with Stalin in Tehran and two other times to combat Hitler. That was world war, but the much vaunted “War on Terror” might as well be another kind of world war the way our government has been acting. The postmodern Machiavelli, if I may post-interpret a fellow Italian, would not argue that Salih be reinstated, but would see an advantage in offering “humanitarian” help at the same time that Salih can be moved away from the ongoing political action. Unlike the situation with Iran’s embattled Shah, the army and a significant number of Yemenis still support Salih, even if not with enthusiasm, as a symbol, however tarnished by the rampant corruption, of stability. Our embassy is not likely to be overrun by the street; nor is there some Yemeni variant of an Ayatollah waiting in the wings to fashion an Islamic state. So, let Salih be treated here; Columbia Presbyterian accepts all major credit cards, even those of former dictators.

Daniel Martin Varisco