from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Yemen: The Worst Reason for War

April 3, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The excellent New York Times journalists David K. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim have an article tacking stock of the nine-day old Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi and Houthi-affiliated fighting forces in Yemen. On the evening of the first airstrikes, the White House revealed that the United States was aiding this intervention: “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.”

Unclear as to why the Obama administration hastily and enthusiastically endorsed and supported the air campaign, I wrote a piece analyzing the justifications that U.S. officials were offering (I counted seven).

Most disturbing were two acknowledgments by Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command—the geographic region containing the Persian Gulf. First, he said, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Austin also admitted when asked when he learned of the intervention, “I had a conversation with the CHOD [the Saudi Chief of Defense] right before they took action, so it was shortly before.” So the military commander responsible for providing the logistical and intelligence support to the intervention did not know its goals or objectives, and only learned of it right before it began.

It was with this background and understanding of the air campaign so far that I then came across this passage in Kirkpatrick and Fahim’s article this morning:

American officials said they supported the Saudi campaign mainly because of a lack of alternatives.

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.”

So if the United States cannot stop a misguided intervention by its partners into a proxy civil war ten thousand kilometers away, the only alternative is to join them? Surely the unnamed Pentagon official is aware that the intervention is directly at odds with other, allegedly more pressing, U.S. foreign policy interests in the region: making Yemen an even more unstable country, as evidenced by the prison break that included members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and assuredly diverting the already meager GCC air assets participating in the coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

Rather, since the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was inevitable, America’s support for it was predetermined. This is especially puzzling since none of the countries bombing Yemen are mutual defense treaty allies with the United States, so there is no obligation, even under the most tortured self-defense justification, to support them. Moreover, even when allies undertake foreign military misadventures, that should not mean that U.S. support is mandatory. In 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus, President Richard Nixon was surprised but provided no support and, in 1982,  when the United Kingdom went to war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands, President Ronald Reagan remained neutral.

Quotes by anonymous officials are not formal policy declarations, but they often accurately capture the honest thinking of those who work to develop and implement foreign policy. Recall the “presidential advisor” who, in the New Yorker, admiringly described the president’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” The defense official quoted above has articulated a far more troubling doctrine of America being led into war by a nervous Gulf monarchy, and the White House lacking the agency to do anything about it, other than to climb on board and offer the unmatched U.S. military enabling support for this war.

Finally, this intervention is going terribly based upon all of the courageous reporting from those in the country. Per usual, the victims of the war will be innocent non-combatants. Just this morning, UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos released a statement warning: “Reports from humanitarian partners in different parts of the country indicate that some 519 people have been killed and nearly 1,700 injured in the past two weeks–over 90 of them children.” Why did the White House so eagerly sign up to back the Saudi-led intervention that has such unclear goals and is causing such obvious destruction and death?

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Yemen

Saudi Arabia

Military Operations

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