Saudi Arabia has begun an aggressive airstrike campaign to combat the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels by controlling the Yemeni skies and coast. Is there a role for more international intervention to defuse the situation? Should the United States step in on the side of its ally, Saudi Arabia?
Blog post by: Conor McGrath
Last month’s developments in the ongoing Yemen crisis appear to have taken a turn for the worse. While Houthi rebels stormed into Aden, the central government’s last bastion of power, Saudi Arabia has wasted no time in organizing an airstrike campaign to support Yemen’s central government. This is happening even as the country’s President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the country to command a government in exile. The Saudi’s aren’t alone in this fight. An impressive coalition of states, made up of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Egypt are all involved in some capacity. The United States is also playing a role by providing “enabling support” in the form of targeted intelligence from surveillance drones and weapon shipments to the Saudi military.
The Houthis aren’t alone either. Since at least 2004, the Shia Houthi’s have been supplied with money, weapons, and technical training by the Iranian government and such support has only increased since Sana’a fell to the rebels last September. With support pouring in from both sides, it’s easy to see what the Yemen conflict really is: a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two of the Middle East’s emerging powers. While both nations vie for dominance in the region, the United States has found itself at a crossroads of whether or not it should expand its intervention. If history is to be any guide, the answer should be a resounding no. Despite reports showing that the Saudi air campaign likely won’t be enough to dislodge the Houthis permanently, there is little doubt that anything short of a full-scale American invasion would make a difference. Instead, the United States should stick to its primary Middle East objectives. That is, ensure a steady supply of oil keeps flowing to global markets while maintaining regional balance of power. Countering the influence of Islamic extremists comes in third, and while important, should not be important enough to require boots on the ground.
It is true that the conflict in Yemen has been particularly damaging to American counterterrorism operations. The United States will be unable to coordinate drone strikes against Al Qaeda like it had under Hadi and his predecessors and it likely won’t have that opportunity for some time. In fact, it appears that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stands to gain quite a bit from this conflict as the traditional Yemeni institutions that have kept them at bay have all but been destroyed.
Early reports showing AQAP forces closing in around the city of Al Mukalla and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s expression of alarm at AQAP’s gains in the region should still be taking seriously. However, it’s important that the Unites States doesn’t react prematurely and make the situation worse.
Events like these usually bring us to ask the question of whether or not America has a grand strategy for the Middle East. Critics of President Obama often point out that he doesn’t have one at all. Instead, the current administration has pursued a “don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy centered on minimizing the number of screw-ups the country gets itself into. While this may sound pleasant to those who saw Bush’s eight years as one big and costly disaster, others, notably Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf, have taken issue with this approach.
Vox’s Amanda Taub has also called out the Obama Administration, labeling the President’s pursuit of the so-called “Yemen Model” a shortsighted disaster. The strategy that the United States is taking in Yemen is nothing new. Like in Libya and now with ISIS, the administration takes the same approach – temporarily ally with the strongest opposition faction. Supply them with weapons, funds, intelligence, and finally air support before watching the current regime topple and the country plunge into sectarian chaos.
But is there really a need for an American grand strategy in the Middle East? Does the United States really want to invest this heavily into the emerging Saudi-Iranian proxy war? We only have to look at the previous President’s grand strategy and see how much of a disaster that turned out to be.
If Saudi Arabia wants to wage a ground war propping up a failing state, it’s welcome to. After all, the Saudis do have an interest in protecting their southern border in addition to besting Iran in a regional power struggle. By providing tacit support for our Saudi allies in this struggle, it appears this can be done without launching our own airstrikes or deploying ground troops to the Arabian Peninsula.
It’s true that the Yemen model, and its application to Iraq and Libya, didn’t really work out the way the administration had planned. All three countries now find themselves on the brink of becoming failed states. However, the United States did manage to maintain the regional power balance and avoid embroiling itself in a costly ground war in the process.
While the results haven’t been exactly perfect, the Obama administration has managed to avoid a major screw-up that would cost dearly in blood and treasure. Sometimes avoiding a screw-up is just the best option when dealing with the mess that is Middle East politics.
Conor McGrath is a junior double majoring in International Affairs and Political Science. He spent his last semester studying abroad at Sciences Po in Paris, and is now spending his free time interning at a political consulting firm in DC.