As President Obama swings against President Saleh of Yemen, our own thoughts go back to 2000, when the strongman made a visit to New York and, in an astonishing demarche, met with the leaders of the Jewish community here. Mr. Saleh had already been president of either North Yemen or Unified Yemen since 1978. His meeting with the Jewish leadership was organized by the philanthropist S. Daniel Abraham. The invitation to the event, which took place at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, described the gathering as a “festive” one, “honoring” Mr. Saleh for taking a leading role in “the democratization of his country” and for — as the invitation was quoted in an editorial of the Forward — as “actively supporting a comprehensive regional peace.”
“Hello?” the Forward exclaimed. It then went on to list the suppression of the press, the medieval treatment of women, the exclusion of the free trade union movement, and the hostility to Zionism and to Israel. Much hope was invested by the Jewish leadership in the very willingness of Mr. Saleh to meet with them. Much was also being made of a change in policy that would allow Israeli citizens of Yemeni descent to visit Yemen. What small beer. What the Forward wanted was for the Jewish leadership to take a clear-eyed look at the tyrant they were sitting down to honor.
That editorial was written with a bow to Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal. He is gone now, but in the 1980s he had gathered his editorial team and said — we paraphrase here, but not by much — “I don’t want to treat with the dictators of the Middle East. I want you to go out and get to know the democratic movements in exile. And let us treat with them.” This newspaper is not a government, merely scrivners. But the Bartley line turned out to be one of the strands — a modest one, but not to be discounted — in policy line that led to the gamble that has given us, in Iraq, at least a chance to an Arab democracy.
Democracy itself has risks, as we’re watching now in Egypt, where the Nobel Laureate in peace, Mohamed ElBaradei, is now saying that — as we read him — if he gets elected president, Egypt will go to war against Israel should Israel seek to defend itself against the attacks being made from Gaza. The gamble America is taking today at Libya may yet empower a movement that is rallying under the cry of democracy only as cover for a repressive, al-Qaeda linked, anti-democratic putsch, though it is hard to imagine that could be a whole lot worse than the regime it is bidding to replace.
All the more tragic is the squandering of the decades since Mr. Saleh first acceded to power at North Yemen. Imagine if America’s president were still Jimmy Carter. We’d have missed not only President Reagan but also Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, let alone Presidents George H.W. Bush and Obama. Whenever it is that Mr. Saleh goes he will leave a country that is poor and a breeding ground for al Qaeda. What a tragedy that successive American administrations were propping this regime. Imagine if instead of prioritizing “stability’ and the supposed support for the Arab-Israeli “peace process” there had been a principled policy that prioritized freedom and democracy.