HONOLULU: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s request to visit the United States presents President Barack Obama with a new dilemma born in the snake pit of fast-shifting Arab politics.
US officials say the only reason Saleh will be admitted, is for "legitimate" medical treatment for wounds sustained in an attack on the presidential compound in Sanaa in June.
But such a trip would open the United States to charges of harboring a brutal ruler responsible for the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators, and seem to present a direct contradiction of its push for human rights.
The choice also reflects a problem with which Washington has wrestled throughout the Arab Spring: how to reconcile US strategic interests with a desire to be seen as backing the aspirations of oppressed peoples.
Strife-torn Yemen, increasingly threatened by an Al-Qaeda affiliate and a Petri dish for terror plots, is a deep source of worry for US officials.
The New York Times irked Obama aides Monday by saying the administration had agreed "in principle" on Saleh’s trip. The White House said the report was "not true."
Officials believe the trip could get the long-time strongman out of Yemen to smooth the transition to elections due in February, after which Saleh has said he will step down.
The move could also save lives, if it eases violence in which pro-Saleh forces killed 13 people as recently as Saturday.
But the plan leads Washington onto sensitive ground.
"I think the administration is being too clever by half," said Andrew Exum, a Middle East expert at the Center for New American Security, noting the terrible optics of providing refuge to someone whom opponents in Yemen think should face the International Criminal Court.
Saleh would face stringent conditions in return for admission to a New York hospital, possibly including a ban on media interviews to deprive him of a political platform.
"There are a number of considerations that I think the president has in mind," said Elliott Abrams, a senior Bush administration official now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
"It’s his decision. It’s not a decision that the secretary of state or the national security adviser is going to make."
Abrams said the administration needed to weigh whether getting Saleh out would calm Yemen or be detrimental to the United States.
Obama aides must also mull whether Saleh can be trusted to stick to conditions, given his history of repeated political reversals.
Many observers believed Saleh would not return to Yemen after treatment in Saudi Arabia after June’s attack.
But showing a canny survival instinct, he was soon back, leading to fears he would abandon his pledge to step down.
"Because he’s promised to resign so many times, Saleh has very limited credibility … he can’t be trusted to follow through based on his past," said James Phillips, a senior research fellow at Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation.
Phillips argued that Saleh should only be permitted entry in return for a genuine retreat from power.
Ahead of Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, the White House is keen to avoid analogies to the late 1970s when the United States allowed the Shah of Iran to be treated in a US hospital, a move seen as speeding the Islamic revolution.
The Saleh request is also provoking wider questions about the nature of US Middle East policy.
The fact that John Brennan — Obama’s top counter terrorism advisor — oversees Yemen policy, is testimony to the White House’s deep fears over the risk of terror strikes emanating from the fractured country.
Two years ago, while Obama was also in Hawaii for Christmas, Nigerian extremist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — trained in Yemen by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — allegedly tried to blow up a US airliner over Detroit with explosives sewn into his underwear.
In September, US-Yemeni militant Anwar Al-Awlaqi, believed to have masterminded several plots, was killed in an apparent volley of US air strikes in Yemen.
While acknowledging the security threat, some critics see cause for concern in Brennan’s primacy.
"One wonders whether the US has a Middle East policy or a counter terrorism policy," said Exum.
With its consuming counter terrorism campaign, which has alienated some Yemenis, Washington may also be accused of falling into an old trap — ignoring popular yearnings for freedom in pursuit of its own security goals.