If you want a graphic example of how U.S. intervention can very often make the situation worse, look no further the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has long since been designated by the United Nations as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
A military campaign Saudi Arabia confidently predicted back in 2015 would be over in weeks has instead dragged out into what can only be referred to as one, long, never-ending nightmare. With the war entering its fifth year this coming March, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s first overseas misadventure (there have been too many to count) has produced a tragedy of such great proportions that Yemen — the poorest country in the Arab world — now resembles a house of real-life horrors.
While the United States may not be bombing Houthi targets alongside Saudi and Emirati warplanes, the fact is that Washington’s diplomatic, intelligence, and military support to the Saudi-led coalition since the war began has made it a party to the conflict. As the U.N. Expert Group on Yemen concluded in its latest report this week, “third States, including Canada, France, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United Kingdom…and the United States of America, continued their support of parties to the conflict including through arms transfers, thereby helping to perpetuate the conflict.”
Whether U.S. officials care to admit it or not, Washington is the most significant enabler of Saudi Arabia’s biggest foreign policy disaster in decades — helping to sustain an indiscriminate, bloody, and ineffective military campaign that has produced nothing but tens of thousands of civilian deaths, massive displacement, a catalogue of war crimes (one case more heinous than the next), starvation, and a further degradation of Yemen’s already poor public infrastructure.
The numbers are absolutely horrific. Over 20 million Yemenis, roughly two-thirds of the country’s entire population, are food insecure. About 360,000 children are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. An estimated 80 percent of Yemenis require humanitarian assistance to survive, putting significant strain on the NGOs and humanitarian activists who are already confronted by a myriad of bureaucratic obstacles and obstruction from both the Saudi military coalition and the Houthis.
The situation isn’t getting any better, either; just this week, the de-facto Houthi administration in Sana’a told the U.N. that all of its flights to the capital’s main airport would be suspended until Riyadh lifted restrictions on the 21 commercial vessels now blocked from docking at the Hodeidah port.
Why the United States would want to be associated with any of this is beyond any rational explanation. Yet the natural question — why on earth is the U.S. still involved in one of the region’s most intractable internal conflicts — has still not been sufficiently answered. U.S. policy in Yemen is a twisted mess of contradictions, with the U.S. State Department encouraging a negotiated political solution to the war at the very same time it pushes billions of dollars in defense equipment, including tens of thousands of air-to-ground munitions, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. is, in effect, pretending to play peacemaker while it feeds the beast.
It would be easy to blame this entire mess on the Trump administration. President Trump, after all, has demonstrated a cavalier attitude towards the Saudi Kingdom in general. His first foreign trip as President of the United States was not to Mexico or Canada, but rather to Saudi Arabia, where he commiserated with senior princes, was bedazzled by Riyadh’s impressive public relations rollout, and boasted, baselessly, about how Saudi purchases of major U.S. weapons equipment would produce millions of American jobs back home. This is to say nothing of the administration’s lackadaisical non-response to the slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which was nothing short of a premeditated, state-supported assassination.
But the truth is that U.S. policy on both Saudi Arabia and Yemen is not just on Trump‘s shoulders. It’s a bipartisan failure spanning two presidencies. It was President Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, who agreed to plunge the United States into Yemen’s civil war to begin with. It was Obama, not Trump, who authorized the mid-air refueling, logistical, and intelligence assistance that would help sustain the Saudi coalition’s prosecution of the war. And it was Obama, not Trump, who would wind up proposing over $115 billion in U.S. military hardware and bombs to Saudi Arabia during his two terms. Yes, Trump has actively continued this policy, notably having vetoed bipartisan efforts in Congress to force him to withdraw U.S. support. But it would be a terribly inaccurate oversight and a stain on the public record to simply dismiss the 2015-2016 timeframe.
Some of Obama’s national security advisers have since come to regret their previous decisions and now understand they made a gigantic mistake. In November 2018, two dozen former Obama staffers published an open letter that amounted to a mea-culpa of sorts. “We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check,” the Obama alumni wrote. “But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened.”
Reflecting on his time in the Obama administration this year, former National Security Council official Steve Pomper discussed how the war in Yemen quickly accelerated in a direction the U.S. never intended for it to go. “[W]e found ourselves locked into this terrible situation, unable to wrap it up, and handing it off to an administration that was going to handle it even worse than we did,” Pomper told the New York Times.
To be completely fair, the Trump administration has held back some support to the Saudi coalition. The White House made the decision in November 2018 to stop refueling Saudi and Emirati aircraft, a key logistical capability that enabled the very airstrikes on civilians and civilian infrastructure (hospitals, homes, grain silos, ports, funerals, you name it) the U.S. is supposedly concerned about.
Yet U.S. munitions and arms continue to flow to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as if the two nations were perfect stewards of American equipment. In reality, these exports (particularly of arms that can be classified as offensive) is perpetuating Washington’s original error of picking winners and losers. The reality is that as long as Yemen’s civil war goes on, U.S. officials can’t be confident that the weapons it sells to the coalition will be used appropriately. Indeed, the record suggests quite the opposite.
The U.S. is presented with two, clear options in Yemen. The first is a continuation of the status-quo, where Washington pays lip service to diplomacy while taking actions that fuel the war and make a potential diplomatic solution even less palpable to the combatants. If Washington takes this road, it should expect the same results: more civilian casualties, a deeper deterioration of Yemen’s overall humanitarian situation, a more emboldened Saudi and UAE coalition that takes U.S. support for granted, and a proliferation of the very terrorist groups the U.S. seeks to combat.
Or, alternatively, Washington can cut the cord on this conflict and truly support a U.N. peace process that is, at best, suffering from all kinds of logistical and substantive problems. Choosing this course would not only distance the U.S. from a war it has no direct national security interest in participating in, but would also send a much-needed message to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and any other security partner in the Middle East that Washington will no longer spend precious resources and moral capital on disputes only the region can resolve.