Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Have you ever heard of Ali Abdullah Saleh? If not, I imagine you will within the next few months. Mr. Saleh has the bad misfortune to be the President of Yemen and I would bet even money that he will be the target of an assassination attempt before the summer sun hits Sana’a. Mr. Saleh finds himself stuck between the wishes of the United States and the ire of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He has some company in his cramped little space—Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has been in there for a while now.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was also the President of Yemen back in 1987, when I first got there as a Peace Corps volunteer fresh out of college. At the time, Yemen was divided into North Yemen and South Yemen, which was a client state of the Soviet Union. Since then, President Saleh has negotiated the reunification of the two Yemens and held onto power in spite of a secessionist movement in the south and tribal unrest (propped up by Saudi Arabia) in the north. He has proven himself to be an able politician.

Yet I say again, I have strong doubts Ali Abdullah Saleh will be alive come August.

I bring this up not to get my prognostication out in public, but rather in service of a larger point. When I lived in Yemen from 1987 to 1989, almost every person I met there, from the taxi drivers in the capital to the store clerk in Hodeidah to the dirt-poor farmer in the mountaintop villages, was able to identify George Herbert Walker Bush as President of the United States. Yet, none of my close friends or family members back in the United States had any idea where Yemen even was, let alone who their President might be.

The imbalance of power struck me powerfully, even then as a 21-year old who knew next-to-nothing about the world. The uneducated 35-year old farmer who had never left his mountain HAD to know who George Bush was because decisions made by George Bush affected that farmer directly. My mom did not have to know who Ali Abdullah Saleh was because decisions made in Sana’a by President Saleh did not seem to have any effect on her.

Yet, it turns out some of his decisions DID have an effect on my mom--as well as on every other American. And now we do what it seems we have to do each time there is a crisis in a new hot spot—we as a nation have to scramble to make sense of a seemingly-impenetrable situation in a place we know next-to-nothing about. When will we learn?