America Should See Saudi Arabia's War on Yemen for the Horror It Really Is
Hadi may be the “legitimate” president, but he does not offer stability. Chatham House reported that Hadi was “widely seen as a bit player whose importance is derived from legal technicalities, external support, and access to resources rather than from hard-earned ‘grounded’ legitimacy.” He is dependent on foreign support and fears being killed if he returns to his country. Indeed, two of his ministers recently resigned, claiming that the Saudi government barred them, and Hadi, from returning to Yemen.
America’s only serious security issue involving Yemen is the revival of al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s most active affiliate. AQAP has accelerated recruiting and expanded its presence. The Jamestown Foundation’s Michael Horton observed that “AQAP has become more pragmatic and continues to de-prioritize ideology—at least in terms of its day-to-day operations—in favor of building alliances, recruiting and training capable fighters and enhancing access to revenue streams.” The group now controls an estimated third of the country.
Carafano argued that if Washington stopped underwriting Riyadh’s aggression, “Tehran, Islamic State group and al-Qaeda would feel emboldened and likely double-down on expanding the war.” This is incorrect because for Islamists and terrorists the war has been a godsend. The Houthis, though anti-American, also are anti-AQAP. However, their attention has been diverted, by Saudi and UAE aggression, giving AQAP room to breathe. In addition, even the State Department admitted that AQAP and the Islamic State have “exploited the political and security vacuum left by the conflict between the Yemeni government and Houthi-led opposition.”
Moreover, journalist Laura Kasinof observed that Hadi, lacking internal support, “cozied up to the Islamists” before his ouster, even quietly cooperating with AQAP in some areas. Also, noted Reisener, “al-Qaeda was significantly bolstered by the transfer of weapons from Saudi Arabia to a number of al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni militia groups in Yemen.” Zimmerman said that “The Saudi-led coalition tolerates AQAP’s presence on the battlefield, so long as the group fights against the al-Houthi-Saleh forces.” Thus, the Trump administration arms the Saudis- who arm or turn a blind eye of AQAP- while also increasing airstrikes and ground deployments against al-Qaeda. The U.S. is therefore undermining its own objectives by supporting a bad ally in a bad war.
Yet, American war advocates incongruously claim that the way to reduce casualties and end the war is to support escalating Saudi attacks. Secretary Mattis warned that restricting U.S. aid “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis—all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.” Arguing that Americans must continue to help the coalition kill civilians to stop it from killing more civilians is bizarre. How can the U.S. know it is stopping the killing of civilians if officials admit that they do not even pretend to monitor Saudi attacks.
Carafano declared, “Instead of turning our back on Yemen, the U.S. should focus on ending the war.” By continuing to subsidize Saudi aggression? Doing so reduces the cost of war for Riyadh. Furthermore, as an active belligerent the U.S. has no credibility to try to mediate and so cannot bring everyone to the table. Instead, the best hope to end the bloodshed is forcing the Saudi royals to pay for their murderous misadventure. The truth is that the U.S. has no leverage when it underwrites and ignores Saudi failure.
Lastly, Carafano pointed to the supposed Russian menace: “Putin would interpret an American withdrawal as a green light for additional Russian meddling—the type that Moscow has brought to the Syrian civil war.” However, this is just more threat inflation as Moscow never demonstrated any interest in joining the war in Yemen. The situation is not comparable to Syria, with whom Russia has long been an ally. In general, Moscow’s influence in the Middle East remains minor compared to that of Washington and so doesn’t require U.S. involvement in Yemen.
Candidate Donald Trump criticized President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, but President Trump is doubling down on Obama’s unnecessary Middle Eastern war. There is no good reason to do so on behalf of an authoritarian regime guilty of promoting Islamic radicalism. The U.S. is subordinating fundamental American interests and values to those of a royal dictatorship and entangling the U.S. in another distant, unnecessary, and unwinnable conflict. Ultimately, a political settlement is necessary, putting the interests of the Yemeni people before that of either the Saudi royals or Iranian mullahs.
Carafano argued that, “The U.S. cannot be a bystander.” But, of course the U.S. can and, in this case, it should. American policy has created chaos, spread radicalism, underwritten tyranny, and aided aggression. Washington has done all of these in tragic Yemen and has yet to learn from the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. The first step towards that should be President Trump choosing to end America’s disastrous meddling in Yemen.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.