Image: Natalie Wu
By: Scott Strgacich
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman strikes an interesting figure. To some, he represents the vanguard of Saudi liberalization and modernization. To others, an ambitious scion of a blood-stained dynasty with a Cheshire cat grin and a hawkish bent. To still others, he is an utter enigma. Of course, all of these conceptions bear truth. Undeniably, though, he is, in all of these capacities, a staunch US ally.
Named Crown Prince in June of last year, the 32-year-old has since been making waves in Saudi politics, advocating some measure of reform at home but a firm hand abroad. Beyond his infamously vocal anti-Iranian sentiments, Prince Mohammad has also been a strong supporter of King Salman’s current policy in Yemen. The 2015 intervention against the Iran-backed Houthis by a Saudi-led coalition has precipitated three years of horrendous bloodshed and strategic stagnation. The conflict now stands poised to supplant Syria as the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis with 69% of the population requiring some kind of assistance and two million Yemenis internally displaced. At the core of this crisis is a powerful enabler – the United States.
While the US has been carrying out operations in Yemen since before the War on Terror began, its material and intelligence support for the Saudi coalition opens a new phase of the Yemeni front, one that has nothing to do with the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force that provided the legal foundation for a global war that has not abated since. While the bombs that fall on Yemeni villages are not being dropped US forces, the munitions themselves are American-made, dropped from US exports like the F-15E Strike Eagle by likely US-trained pilots whose aircraft are refueled by US aerial tankers and whose ground targets are provided by US intelligence. This is an American war, whether we like it (or know it) or not.
The American contribution to the conflict’s humanitarian costs is disturbingly clear and demonstrably high. The coalition’s persistent bombing campaign, especially in the Houthi-controlled northwest, has ravaged the country’s infrastructure and instigated a famine of potentially biblical proportions. An unprecedented cholera outbreak has also killed thousands. For a country that has relied heavily on imports to meet its basic needs for medicines and food staples, the Saudi air campaign, fundamentally undergirded by substantial US support, has been ruinous. Utterly absent a sufficient jus ad bellum, Saudi Arabia and the United States have taken to waging a conflict with a morally depraved jus in bello, degrading American moral legitimacy throughout the world while reinforcing anti-Americanism in Yemen, a country not exactly crowded with Americanophiles to begin with.
Beyond the humanitarian senselessness of the conflict, a strategic and legal senselessness also pervades US efforts in the Yemen debacle. Regardless of whether US actions in Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have been appropriate up to now, US support for the Saudi agenda bears for America little strategic significance and cannot in any rational way be considered a component of the War on Terror. Indeed, some legal scholars question whether the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs can be employed to justify the expansion of the War on Terror itself let alone the use of forward deployed military assets to assist allies in an unrelated war without Congressional sanction. It also bears mentioning that the Houthi movement, largely dominated by Shia Muslims, are adversaries of the Salafist AQAP and have been for years. If anything, Saudi-American operations against the Houthis play to Al Qaeda’s benefit, stirring up anti-American sentiment and weakening its enemies with little cost to itself.
More broadly, US power playing in the Middle East has, in recent decades, seldom worked to its advantage. Aside from the fact that American intrusiveness is often perceived by regional powers as neo-imperialism, the Yemeni conflict in particular raises key issues about the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. At least since the collapse of an attempted rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the early 2000s, the two countries have been caught in an intractable “cold war” of sorts, dragging much of the Gulf into the maelstrom. As this cold war gets hotter with crises at its every inflection point, the latest being Yemen, antagonism between the Gulf’s two strongest powers grows. The US has no place inflaming tensions further which could very well lead to a broader regional crisis from which the US would likely be unable (or unwilling) to divest itself. If America even possesses a Gulf strategy at this juncture, it should be to conscientiously remove itself from the armed entanglements that have been only to its strategic detriment. Yemen is no exception. Though the US role there can be called “limited,” that certainly does not emancipate it from the dangers it poses and the fact that it provides no strategic utility. Strategic futility, however, it provides in abundance.
Indeed, as suggested, it is explicitly in America’s strategic interests to divorce itself from its role in Yemen’s nightmare. A bloated defense budget has no prospects of getting smaller as American commitments in Yemen expand and there is always the looming specter of a classic mission creep scenario. With US force levels growing again all over the Middle East under the Trump administration, a flash point like Yemen is ripe for a gradual widening and deepening of the US presence in the conflict. If any lessons have been gleaned from the American experience in Iraq, it is that the US cannot effectively wage a large-scale ground war in a sectarian environment while also hoping to foster stability. In the case of Yemen, as it was in Iraq, the cake could neither be had nor eaten.
If tragedies like the Iraq contretemps exist for any purpose it is to offer guidance for future actions. Given our present trajectory in Yemen, the painful lessons of Iraq have still not been fully learned. But, unlike so many other disastrous scenarios playing out on America’s watch, this one is not hopeless. In March, Democratic and Republican Senators forwarded a joint resolution to call for an end to the American role in the Yemeni Civil War. Indeed, in the post-Iraq War world, restraint and temperance in foreign policy has seemed to take on an increasingly bipartisan form. Though the resolution ultimately failed, its bipartisan nature breathed life into a renewed call for Congress to reassert its consent-giving prerogative and to end US participation in an unsanctioned and useless foreign war. The most hopeful takeaway came from the two cosponsors who together spearheaded the legislation: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the Senate’s most liberal voice, and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, among its most conservative.
US support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen must be rescinded. Its moral deprivation, legal tenuousness and strategic nonsense bear this out plainly. As said in the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to embrace,” but also “a time to refrain from embracing.” This is one of those times.