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Why Are We Backing the Saudi Campaign in Yemen?
Two weeks ago, I ventured a prediction:
Anyway, how do I bet what little I have left on “Saudis screw this up big time within two weeks? I’ll bet it all. I need the money.
The prediction was correct–that was an easy one–but I regret the insensate tone, not least because this is now yet another humanitarian catastrophe. UN estimates suggest 100,000 people have been displaced. It’s easy to dismiss Yemen as a perennially benighted hellhole, but kids who were born in Yemen have committed no other crime:
The chaos in Yemen, now the scene of some of the most chaotic fighting in the Middle East, has left civilians — noncombatants, both locals and foreigners — caught in the crossfire.
Those trying to escape the violence, either by leaving their homes or by leaving the country altogether, have been flung into a vortex of fear, fatigue, flight and death.
Explosions shattered windows in Sanaa, the country’s capital. The fighting has killed hundreds of people in less than two weeks.
At least 74 children are known to have been killed and 44 children maimed since the fighting began on March 26, UNICEF said Monday in a statement. That did not include the children reportedly killed Tuesday in Maitam.
US policy is to deliver weapons to the Saudis:
The United States said on Tuesday that it was expediting deliveries of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a sign of the Obama administration’s deepening involvement in the Saudi military offensive against the Houthi movement in Yemen.
And Saudi policy, it seems, is to bomb relentlessly. To what end? Can you imagine achieving any desirable goal in these circumstances through air power alone? So far, and predictably, it has been serving only to create chaos, from which A.Q.A.P. is greatly profiting:
AQAP already demonstrated its reach this year with what it calls “the blessed battle of Paris,” the attack on the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last winter. The group trained the killers and claimed credit for financing the operation. It credited al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahri for selecting the target. The Paris attack inspired others a month later in Copenhagen against other individuals who had satirized the Prophet Muhammad.
AQAP was behind the December 2009 attempt to blow up a passenger jet flying from Amsterdam to Detroit and a series of plots to send explosives to destroy aircraft in the United States. The group has a cadre of experienced bomb-makers.
The longer the war in Yemen continues, which could be a long time, the more al-Qaeda will benefit. It will carry out terror attacks on the Zaydis and the Saudis both. It has underground cadres in the kingdom that Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef tries to unmask. He has been very successful in doing so, but it’s a constant battle.
Why are we backing this? The answer, it seems, is “Why not?“
“If you ask why we’re backing this, beyond the fact that the Saudis are allies and have been allies for a long time, the answer you’re going to get from most people—if they were being honest—is that we weren’t going to be able to stop it,” said an American defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the official was discussing internal government deliberations.
“If the Saudis were willing to step in, the thinking was that they should be encouraged,” the official said. “We were not going to send our military, that’s for certain.”
The unstated logic of our policy, I assume, is to reassure the Saudis that our negotiations with Teheran don’t entail a lack of commitment to Saudi defense. (That it is highly unlikely to serve even Saudi ends–and may well end up destabilizing the Kingdom–seems to be of little concern here, but it should be.) So in other words, we’re again at war without any declaration of it, with no clear statement of our aims, no strategy, and no rationale beyond, “The Saudis are stepping in, which should be encouraged.”
The United States had no plan in place for evacuating its own citizens, and is now recommending that they try to hitch a ride out with Indian citizens:
On Monday, India rescued more than 1,000 people by plane and ship, the second time in two days that such a large number have been brought out since Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen on March 26. India has been asked by 26 nations – including the United States – to help get their citizens out of the conflict zone.
Does our policy seem to you wise?
Published in Foreign Policy, General
Nothing about our foreign policy seems wise.
But, it is not all the fault of Obama. The American people are at fault. We do not like long conflicts. we are unwilling to support what is needed to stabilize an area. We will not fund our military, we redeploy people over and over, and have thrown away gains. The American people have no stomach for the hard choices, no stomach for the long haul, and no will to really change the world and make things better.
The Middle East is a rolling tragedy. When, in the future, people look back, they will not ask “Why did America intervene so much?” They will ask “How could such a good and caring people stand by and do so little?”
Thus, we will be judged.
I share your skepticism and humanitarian instincts, Claire, but I don’t know how we can really know what’s happening in Yemen. Imagine what people would say today about Allied bombing in WWII. We leveled whole cities with fire and TNT. But the Nazis had done it first, and never thought they would have to face the same medicine they dished out.
The Shi’ites of all ages dying in Yemen would possibly not hesitate to do the same to the Sunnis everywhere else, if they could. Children in the Middle East are known killers. Are they exempt from consequences just because they’re so young?
How can we know? Can you ster me to a reliable source of information?
The International Crisis Group is usually cautious and reliable. There’s been quite a bit of coverage in the New York Times, WaPo, CNN, BBC, etc. We’re not suffering from a lack of reliable information, from what I can tell–just from a lack of a policy that makes any sense. I can’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would think Saudi air power will do anything but bring misery and further destabilizion. Only AQAP stands to gain from it.
The conflict in Yemen is neither Obama’s fault nor the fault of the American people. But backing the Saudis in a military misadventure is both. I would have no objection to lending support to a plan that made sense, but this isn’t working and won’t work.
How’d the bombing campaign work out in Libya?
Without taking and holding actual real estate, I don’t see any good coming from this due remaining instability.
The only thing that seems wise to me is for no reporter, no politician, nobody, ever, to use the phrase “boots on the ground” ever again, for any reason, excepting if their boots fall out of the back of the truck. Then they can say “my boots are on the ground.”
I am woefully inadequate at making heads or tails of any of this stuff. It strikes me that nobody in the Administration is any better at it than me. And it sort of seems to me that when we find a situation that we don’t fully understand, but somehow feel that we should do something about, we send one side or the other weapons.
I maintain that the wise and sensible approach to the Middle East should be to run, not walk, in the direction of energy independence, and starve those trouble makers of the cash they need to constantly make trouble.
That’s the kind of naive, non-nuanced (?) response you get from a small town hick like myself.
The Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, and Egyptians know the Middle Eastern mindset far better than we ever will. I wonder what Israel and Egypt think of the Saudi campaign?
Which of these two motivators, do we westerners think, is stronger? The desire to succeed in the world financially, intellectually, and through our families’ similar success? Or tribally, to gain retribution and revenge for our wounded honor, power for our sheikh, and the glory of our tribe in Paradise, with Muhammed?
My guess is the latter, which we westerners think is retrograde and delusional. But we have to deal with things as they are, not as we would like them to be.
Claire, this is a great post. More than anything, I think this situation represents the demise of “Grand Strategy” thinking in the post-Cold War era. The United States is caught in an absurd situation where Iran is an ally against the Islamic State and an enemy in Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
We find ourselves in such a situation because of the naive assumptions of foreign-policy makers and their inability to formulate a grand strategy. Instead, we rely on a hopeless reactive foreign policy without the ability to shape events.
I am not smart enough to develop a guiding grand strategy for the Middle East, but destabilizing the region by removing Saddam Hussein, Mubarrak, Qadaffi (after he gave up his WMD program!), and pushing fake red-lines on Assad have not helped. Now we are supporting the bombing of helpless Yemeni civilians simply to make the Saudis feel better.
Sadly, I don’t think that we have much choice in this. The only way to possibly prevent the Saudis from developing their own nuclear weapon, (now that Iran seems likely to get its own nuke), is to show a serious commitment to their security.
If I thought this would be good for Saudi security, I might have less of a sinking feeling. But I don’t even see how it will serve that end.
Yemen is a proxy conflict for Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran. It will get much uglier before there is any hope of getting any prettier.
I am not sure about the tactical skill of the Saudis, but wouldn’t stalling the advance of the Houthis in Yemen help address the growing imbalance of power in the Middle East and the slow encirclement of Saudi Arabia by Iran? Yemen, Syria, and Iraq are all becoming Iranian client states.
Bahrain’s Shia population showed its dissatisfaction a few years ago with street protests against the monarchy. It got so bad the they even had to cancel the Formula 1! Saudi Arabia also has a marginalized Shia population, and the last thing they need is for them to join the expanding Shia power on the peninsula.
What a mess.
I am just totally impressed that the policy of the US is to hang our citizens out to dry.
It would, but I don’t think there’s much hope of achieving that this way.
In fairness, the US has strongly cautioned against travel to Yemen for quite some time. It’s not entirely reasonable to ignore that advice and then expect to be bailed out.
Still, it looks appallingly bad.
“And Saudi policy, it seems, is to bomb relentlessly. To what end? Can you imagine achieving any desirable goal in these circumstances through air power alone? So far, and predictably, it has been serving only to create chaos, from which A.Q.A.P. is greatly profiting:”
Yeah, like our ridiculous position on ISIS. props to the House of Saud for manning up, even if Quixotically, but all they are doing is exposing the only educated class they have to being burned alive in a cage.
As your original post indicated, this is a humanitarian catastrophe. But in a totally amoral Machiavellian way, isn’t this the equivalent of scorched-earth tactics? The Houthis may win, but there will be little of value left in Yemen as a staging ground for further Iranian advances and the message to Saudi’s Shias will have been sent loud and clear.
What we need here is another blue-ribbon panel with James baker somewhere in the mix. Maybe we can get Jamie Gorelick if she’d not too busy advising on Pentagon policy.
Yup. This math is easy to work out. We spend too much for the little to nothing that it benefits *anybody*. I no longer support a counterinsurgency approach anywhere. Not because the idea is unsound, but because we are unworthy of its attempt.
The first rat’s nest to clear out is in DC. maybe once we’ve won that battle, we can return to doing some good overseas. And not before.
AQAP will be the beneficiary. The focus of our policy in Yemen for years has been counter-terrorism. If AQAP isn’t a real threat, why were we involved there at all? If it is, how could a policy guaranteed to benefit AQAP possibly be in our interest?
I just checked the news:
AQAP commanders have been released:
Seems to me we should be imposing an arms embargo, not fuelling this.
Have to disagree there. The minor details don’t matter — this country that country, the “Khorasan Group”, or the bogeyman — we spiked Iraq and signalled a half-hearted (single-buttocked) interest in the region. This consequence of a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq was advertised as a caution for nearly a decade now.
Seems the only thing we actually will commit to is ensuring Iran gets a nuke. It is Iran, not the Saudis, who will receive security assurances in Obama’s final year. You know, to promote regional security, because if Iran doesn’t feel threatened, they won’t have to nuke the Jews and the Sunnis, QED.
Huh? How does placing an arms embargo on our allies help us?
Yemen is the Saudi’s Near Abroad, and they’re making a point about what can or cannot stand there. Perhaps stupidly, but there you go. Given their predilections I can’t see them setting up a stable government in Yemen (esp Aden), but they’ve shown that they can make sure that nobody else can do that today without their acquiescence. That does have some value for their polity.
The US is painted into a corner wrt supporting Saudi – if you don’t support them all the other Sunni dictatorships and kingdoms in the region start thinking their alliances with you are of questionable value – but if you do support them you’re backing a paradigm that has palpably started to fail and this will not stand you in good stead when it collapses (oh, say, like the Pahlavis did in Iran). Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Because supporting them with arms makes you complicit – Saudi Arabia is a fragile construct, American interests will survive its (largely unlamented) demise.
My guess is that AQAP is a larger threat in the short-term but the longer-term threat is Middle Eastern states becoming nuclear powers. Thus, preventing Iranian advances is a bigger priority right now than counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen. Of course, I remember the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen as the first big moment when I realized that Islamic fundamentalism was a serious issue confronting America.
Secondly, if we wish to combat AQAP, there is no better ally than Saudi Arabia. After all, AQAP is to some extent a Saudi creation, so closer ties with Saudi Arabia might force their hand more with intelligence sharing and operations to disrupt AQAP. Egypt and Saudi know Yemen better than anyone else, so perhaps we can exact a decent price for cooperation.
Granted, the article you cited about releasing AQAP commanders isn’t grounds for confidence. But to get rid of AQAP, we will need as much Saudi cooperation as we can get.
We really don’t want Yemen deteriorating to the point that senior AQAP commanders are let out of prison. (That’s happened already.) The odds of the Saudis achieving any goal that serves their ends or ours are tiny. Arming them is backing an even more precipitous descent into chaos. They won’t defeat the insurgency. They can’t invade and occupy Yemen. Teheran would like nothing more than to see the Saudis bogged down in a conflict they can’t win. If the conflict is protracted, I figure the odds of AQAP taking down the House of Saud are better than those of the Sauds reinstalling Hadi.
I’d like to be wrong about this, but what evidence do we have from the past 15 years that would suggest otherwise?
They were freed when the prison was overran. This argues against keeping high value detainees in places like Yemen. But since Gitmo is off limits… There you go.
I imagine that placing an arms embargo on an ally would have a much more chilling effect among our other allies and not just in this region of the world. Part and parcel of “regional engagement” is to support our allies.
The fact that Iraq was doing swimmingly well right up until the point El Presidente announced a date for withdrawal.
I think you’ve got this backwards. It’s precisely because America have interests in the region that your Commanders-in-chief can be good peace brokers. The man to do this would have to know what America’s interest is & how to secure it, & then start killing the tyrants who get in the way. Thus far, Mr. W. Bush was right. America cannot, however, get rid of all the tyrants. So long as tyrant-killing & American interests are aligned reasonably, every tyrant & gangster will know the limits. Being that Americans are understandably not interested in conquest, acquisition of territory & population, & long wars to glorify great martial virtues, you’re pretty safe.
If you think, however, you can make peace among enemies when you yourself do not have an interest there to guide both you & them as to what’s good & what’s not, good luck.
Mr. Carter is the nadir here. This will help all Americans to get a sense of what not to do or suffer done unto you. There are many degrees of failure, but this is the one than which no worse has been reached.
Lebanon was indeed a really big mistake. So was not getting the Libyan tyrant killed. But that’s pretty small stuff comparatively. As for Afghanistan, that’s not America’s doing, it was not America’s problem, it turned out ok for America, & it’s not in the Middle East. Reagan alone neither suffered nor committed a great blunder.
Mr. Bush played small ball, apparently, because he thought it was a virtue. No president ever confused modesty with prudence quite like he did. He had great powers at his disposal & exerted them too little, for lack of purpose. His son solved the problem, but then he was too ambitious, a very Wilson of the 21st century–he had far less power, compared to his astounding purpose. Maybe another Bush will get it just right.
Here is your next worst. This man was both a coward & careless of his nation’s future. He could not be bothered to improve America’s security standing in good times. He was trying to make peace in Israel, which seems to be the most perverse of the moralistic tendencies of American presidents.
Mr. Obama was dealt a bad hand, but far less bad than his predecessor’s. I think he thought the nation had had enough of war; maybe he was right. He could have stopped the wars without rushing to stop them. He already had the wars & the arms, he did not have to build anything up, just to keep things going & wind them down. This was difficult, but not like running the country after 9/11 or the fall of Iran… Or what his successor will inherit.
Mr. Obama has time to make amends for what he has allowed to happen. He has far less excuse than Mr. Carter, because his arms are greater & the threat far smaller. Mr. Carter did decide to re-arm & was re-arming in 1980, however badly he might have done had he been reelected. At least he did something to help his successor & his nation face the coming crisis.