Gregory Johnsen, former Fulbright fellow in Yemen. He works in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University and writes a regular blog on Yemen at BigThink.com.
The New York Times reported Monday the Obama administration has decided in principle to allow embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to enter the United States to receive "legitimate medical treatment." If the report is true, the United States will have agreed to Saleh’s arrival hours after his forces killed nine people demanding he be tried for deaths of protesters over the past year. Over the last several months, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been demonstrating across the country demanding Saleh face trial for charges ranging from corruption to deadly crackdowns on protests. Saleh agreed last month to step down in return for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family. "[The U.S.] has continued to sort of attempt to hedge its bets and go a little bit down one road and a little bit down another road, and the result being that we have this mess in Yemen where the country is in danger of fragmenting and falling apart," says Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen. "If that happens, if the country of Yemen breaks into four or five different Yemens, then the security threat that the United States and the international community will face from the tip of South Arabia is going to be much greater than it has been up to this point." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times reported Monday the Obama administration has decided in principle to allow embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to enter the United States to receive medical treatment for problems stemming from a near fatal attack in June on his presidential complex. Citing two administration officials, the article said Saleh’s entry would, quote, be "subject to certain assurances."
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh had said over the weekend he would leave for the United States but said he was not going there to seek medical help.
PRESIDENT ALI ABDULLAH SALEH: [translated] I will go to the United States, not for treatment, because I’m fine, but to get away from the attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections. I want to be away for the elections, because whether it fails or succeeds, people may blame the president.
AMY GOODMAN: But a senior U.S. official said Saleh would only be admitted for, quote, "legitimate medical treatment." If the New York Times report is true, the U.S. will have agreed to Saleh’s arrival hours after his forces killed nine people demanding he be tried for deaths of protesters over the past year.
Over the last several months, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been demonstrating across the country demanding Saleh face trial for charges ranging from corruption to deadly crackdowns on protests. Last month, Saleh signed a deal in Saudi Arabia in which he agreed to step down in return for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family.
Yemen TV reports this morning Saleh is headed to a meeting with his ministerial committee and members of the people’s committee to speed up the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement to transfer power.
To talk more about this, we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream—Gregory Johnsen is with us, former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, works in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University, writes a regular blog on Yemen at bigthink.com.
Gregory Johnsen, talk about the significance of a President Obama spokesperson saying that they’ve agreed in principle to allowing Saleh into the United States.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. I think what we see here is that the Obama administration, for the past 10 months in Yemen, has been consistently and constantly wrong-footed. And I think this is just a desperate attempt by the administration to try to get ahead of the curve in Yemen. And as you said in your lead-up, and as I think we discussed in the headlines this morning, we have President Saleh saying he’s not coming for medical reasons, and we have the Obama administration saying the only way that he’s coming, and they’ve agreed in principle to allow him in, is for medical reasons. And so, we have a disconnect from the very start here.
And I think what we’re looking at is that President Saleh is trying to use this visit, this trip to the U.S., for a couple of different reasons: to show people in Yemen that he still has the support of the United States, that the United States is still willing to take him in. He’s shown previously that Saudi Arabia still believes in him, is still backing him. And also I think that he—what he’s doing, and what he’s consistently done through more than three decades of rule, is attempt to have these crises and remove himself from the situation, and then come back in and solve this. And so, I think this is something where the President is looking to come to the U.S. and really use it as a rest stop in an effort to regroup. And in fact, that’s what he said in his speech on Christmas Eve, is that he would return to Yemen, and he would come back as an opposition figure.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is extremely significant, having the ruler of Yemen, who has been responsible for so many deaths during this time of protest, but before that, as well, come into the United States. And it hearkens back, many are pointing out, to when the Shah in Iran was let into the United States by President Jimmy Carter for medical treatment. I want to go back to 2008, when I spoke to former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, who the book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror about the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, when the democratically elected government was overthrown. This was Stephen Kinzer, what he had to say.
STEPHEN KINZER: Well, I’ll tell you an interesting story to start off. I was recently on a panel in the National Cathedral in Washington, and one of the other panelists—we were talking about Iran—was Bruce Laingen, who had been the chief American diplomat in Iran and was the most prominent figure among the hostages that were held there for 444 days. And I knew that Laingen had become an advocate of reconciliation with Iran, which I consider quite remarkable, considering the ordeal that he suffered, so I wanted to talk to him. I hadn’t met him before. And we exchanged some emails after that.
He told me an amazing story. He said, "I had been sitting in my solitary cell as a hostage for about a year, when one day the cell door opens, and there is standing one of the hostage takers, one of my jailers. And all of my rage and my fury built up over one year sitting in that cell just burst out, and I started screaming at him, and I was telling him, 'You have no right to do this! This is cruel, this is inhumane! These people have done nothing! This is a violation of every law of God and man! You cannot take innocent people hostage!'" He said, "I went on like this for several minutes. When I was finally out of breath, the hostage taker paused for a moment, and then he leaned into my cell and said, in very good English, 'You have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953.'"
That story really reinforced to me the connection and the fact that those hostage takers took those hostages not out of nihilistic rage, but for a very specific reason that seemed to make very good sense to them. In 1953, the Iranian people had chased the Shah out, but CIA agents working inside the American embassy in Tehran organized a coup and brought him back. So flash forward to 1979, people of Iran have chased the Shah out again. He has been admitted into the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Under Carter.
STEPHEN KINZER: Under President Carter. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Ostensibly for medical reasons.
STEPHEN KINZER: People in Iran are thinking, "It’s all happening again. CIA agents working in the basement of the American embassy are going to organize a coup, and they’re going to bring the Shah back. We have to prevent 1953 from happening again." That was the motivation for the hostage taking, although I don’t think any of us really understood that at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Gregory Johnsen, talk about the parallels here.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. Well, I think, on the surface, there certainly are some parallels, but there are also some key differences. The U.S. is deeply embedded with President Saleh’s family. For instance, one of his nephews—and he has four nephews that are very high in security services in Yemen—one of his nephews, Ammar Saleh, is an individual that works quite closely with the U.S. on drone strikes, on the war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch of al-Qaeda that’s active there in Yemen. President Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah, heads not only the Republican Guard, but also Yemen’s special forces.
And so, when President Saleh is removed from the situation, as the U.S. appears to be wanting to do—they want to bring him to the U.S., get him away from the elections—and we have to remember that the elections that are happening in February, these are only going to be a one-person election. The current vice president, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is the only individual that appears to be standing for the election. So it’s not going to be much of election anyways. And President Saleh’s excuses for leaving, I think, are a bit flimsy.
AMY GOODMAN: But that idea of what happens if he is coming into the United States for medical treatment. For example, I wanted to go to Tawakkul Karman and also ask you about the significance of her winning the Nobel Peace Prize this year, the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkul Karman, 32-year-old mother of three, who sits under a tent in Sana’a in the main square protesting Saleh, calling for members of the regimes toppled during the Arab Spring to be brought to justice. She gave this speech when she received the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10th, talking specifically also about Saleh.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] These people should be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court. There should be no immunity for killers who rob the food of the people.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, there you have Tawakkul Karman, who was among those who said that the Saleh family, Saleh himself, should not be granted immunity. If they call for him to be transferred to the International Criminal Court, what will the United States do, if he is here, which isn’t a signatory to the ICC, the International Criminal Court? Or if they say they want him tried in their own country, will the U.S. then return him?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. It’s a very difficult situation. I mean, what we have in Yemen is unlike what we’ve seen in Egypt or in Libya or in Tunisia or even in Syria. We have a half-finished revolution, essentially. And the U.S. is sort of caught at sixes and sevens and in between, and isn’t quite sure what to do. The U.S. has called for President Saleh to step down. But at the same time, the U.S. continues to work with his family, which is what runs the counterterrorism operations in Yemen, which the U.S. has shown over and over again is what really matters. And I think it’s instructive, when looking at this, to remember that it’s not Secretary of State Clinton or anyone else on the diplomatic side that’s making this decision or is reportedly making the decision to allow President Saleh to come to the United States, but rather it’s John Brennan, who’s the chief U.S. counterterrorism adviser to President Saleh.
And I think the U.S. has to really be aware of the optics of the situation. This is something where I think, in the eyes of people in Yemen, as well as throughout the Middle East, the U.S. moves from being a negligent power, one that was willing to stand by and make sort of very tepid statements when protesters were dying, to being a complicit power, one that is willing to take in a dictator of more than three decades, who has killed hundreds of his people. And we have to remember that the nine protesters who were just killed this week, these are protesters who marched over a hundred miles in Yemen in what Yemenis are calling a "life march." And this is something that they’ve been trying to bring international attention to the crimes of President Saleh and his family, in the hopes that the international community will take action. But what they met at the end of their march in Sana’a earlier this week was, as we saw, nine people dying.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Saleh saying, "I’m actually not leaving for medical treatment," but the Obama administration saying they’ll only accept him for medical treatment? You did see, as he was speaking, he was wearing gloves on his hands.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. I mean, President Saleh survived the bomb attack on his private mosque back in June. He went to Saudi Arabia for a number of months. And the U.S., I think, at that point felt as though President Saleh was being removed from the equation, and they could move on. Of course, as has often happened in President Saleh’s long career, he was able to make a surprise return in September that once again threw everything—everything that the U.S. and the international community had been working for in Yemen—threw it a bit out of whack. And I think that’s what he’s trying to do here, as well.
You have President Saleh, who, as you mentioned, said he’s not going to come for the United States, and that’s a message for domestic political consumption. He wants to show his supporters, of whom there are still a great many in Yemen, that he’s an individual that can lead the country. Yemen is going through a number of problems, both with al-Qaeda in the south, with an insurgency up in the north. The country is in danger of breaking apart. And President Saleh wants to show his domestic political supporters that he still has the backing of not only the U.S., but also Saudi Arabia. And coming to the U.S., being admitted by the Obama administration, is something that, in his mind, at least, is going to set him up for a political comeback in Yemen, which I think most Yemenis and many people throughout the Middle East would view as disastrous and would view the United States as taking a very active hand in that.
AMY GOODMAN: Columbia Presbyterian Hospital here in New York says, as of yet, they have no plans for him. I think they were quoted in the New York Times saying that he was not—it was not set that he was coming there yet. But returning as an opposition figure, Gregory Johnsen? And also, the significance of WikiLeaks in exposing the U.S. relationship with Yemen? What exactly was exposed when it came especially to drones? And then, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, returning on an apology tour this past December to apologize to the Yemeni government, to Saleh, last year, for what was exposed in relation to the use of drones and the Yemeni government involvement with the U.S.?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. I think, with WikiLeaks, what it really showed was the level of entanglement and enmeshment that we see between U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen and President Saleh’s family. We have to remember that President Saleh himself is not the only problem in Yemen, that removing President Saleh is a significant step, but if that step isn’t complete, and if that step isn’t taken to remove the rest of his family, whom the United States continues to work with on counterterrorism operations, then Yemen’s transition to a full-fledged democracy is, I think, going to be in question.
So what we have here for the United States is really a fundamental choice. Does the U.S. continue to go the way it has been going on carrying out counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group in Yemen? That is, should that be the focus for the United States, working with President Saleh’s family in the military, in the intelligence and security services in Yemen? Or does the United States want to match its action to its rhetoric and fully support the people who are calling for freedom, calling for democracy within Yemen? And if the United States wants to do that, then it needs to make a clean break not only with President Saleh, but with President Saleh’s family.
And I think that’s the fundamental choice that the U.S. has been up against for this past year in Yemen, and it’s continued to sort of attempt to hedge its bets and go a little bit down one road and a little bit down another road, and the result being that we have this mess in Yemen where the country is in danger of fragmenting and falling apart. And if that happens, if the country of Yemen breaks into four or five different Yemens, then the security threat that the United States and the international community will face from the tip of South Arabia is going to be much greater than it has been up to this point.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, just back to that parallel, the underlying part of that, the story of Iran in 1953, the U.S. brings back the Shah and overthrows the democratically elected leader in 1953, well known throughout Iran. In this country, hardly do we understand the history of U.S. involvement in overthrowing the democratically elected leader in 1953. But then, when the Shah was brought in for medical treatment in 1979, the people of Iran, fearing that history was being repeated and that they were preparing to bring the Shah back again, they feared, thus leading to the Iranian Revolution, the hostage crisis. Do you think there is a similar misunderstanding in this country of how Yemenis feel about the United States and its involvement in shoring up Saleh to this point?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: I think, absolutely, there is. I think that the path that the U.S. has taken, particularly in the last decade, of essentially making deals with dictators that would allow them to carry out counterterrorism operations, we’re not sure what the long-term repercussions of these are going to be. But any time that you have the U.S. bombing countries, shooting missiles into different places where we don’t have a lot of intelligence on the ground, I think most evidence would suggest that the long-term repercussions of those are going to be quite negative.
AMY GOODMAN: Gregory Johnsen, I want to thank you for being with us, former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, works in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University. As we discuss the issue of drones in Yemen and drones abroad, we bring it home to the war at home and the use of drones by the U.S. military in the United States. Stay with us.
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