The Debate We Should Be Having About America’s Role in the Yemen War

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Smoke rises from September airstrikes reportedly carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

“Foreign hot spots” was one of the topics on the menu at Wednesday’s third and final presidential debate, but Chris Wallace might as well have just called the segment “Aleppo and Mosul.” Donald Trump, in character, seemed to claim that the liberation of Mosul was timed to help elect Hillary Clinton, then suggested a surprise attack on a city of 1.5 million people — though, in fairness, it was probably one of his less-intentional endorsements of war crimes. For her part, Clinton said she would do pretty much what the Obama administration is already doing in Iraq, only more so, and promised a no-fly zone in Syria that she probably knows is less likely to work out than she publicly suggests.

But Syria and Iraq are hardly the only foreign “hot spots” in which the United States is presently entangled. Another one is Yemen, though the ongoing crisis there doesn’t seem to register strongly enough in the American public consciousness to count. Yet over the past year-and-a-half, the conflict there has taken a harrowing toll — 10,000 dead, the country’s civilian infrastructure devastated, and 80 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. Much of this damage is being done by Saudi Arabia with weapons purchased from the United States, and with the support of American intelligence and military advisors on the ground. The Yemen conflict is emblematic of America’s unhappy entanglement in the regional politics of the Middle East, but it hasn’t been an issue in the election, nor did it come up in any of the debates.

Nearly two weeks ago, the U.S. announced that it was reviewing its support for the Saudi offensive in Yemen after an airstrike killed 140 mourners at a funeral and wounded over 500 others. Navy ships came under attack in the waters off the Yemeni coast, allegedly by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and the U.S. retaliated with Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed coastal radar installations in Houthi-controlled areas. Suddenly, the Obama administration finds itself facing the stark choice between disengaging from the conflict and getting more directly involved. The New York Times, among others, has called on the U.S. to use its influence to press for a cease-fire in Yemen, and while it’s possible that Secretary of State John Kerry will pull that off in the next hundred days, the next president will probably have some choices to make there come January.

Yemenis and rescue teams gather at the site of reported airstrikes on a funeral hall by Saudi-led coalition air-planes in the capital Sanaa on October 8.Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yet neither candidate has bothered to articulate much of a position on how they would handle the situation as president. It doesn’t even merit a mention in the “issues” pages of Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, and that’s no surprise. Whatever Clinton’s thoughts on Yemen may be, she has no particular reason to want to discuss them in public: It’s not exactly a foreign-policy success story, for one thing, and our support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention is seen as part of the price we paid for the kingdom’s acquiescence to last summer’s nuclear agreement with Iran, which feeds the Republican narrative that the deal was too costly. She’d also rather not remind the Democratic base of her own discomfiting coziness with the Saudis.

As for Donald Trump, the smattering of word-salad commentary he has issued on the Yemen conflict (“They [Iran] get Syria, they get Yemen. Now they didn’t want Yemen, but you ever see the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia? They want Saudi Arabia”) makes clear that he doesn’t know much about it but will address it by bombing the shit out of someone, somewhere, because we’re going to start winning again, folks, believe me, and it’s going to be so beautiful.

Amanda Taub argued in the Times earlier this month that Yemen fails to hold Americans’ attention because it’s a messy, complicated conflict without a clear and compelling narrative of good vs. evil. In a war involving a corrupt, ineffectual Yemeni government; a rebel group whose flag reads “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews”; Iran; Saudi Arabia; Al-Qaeda; and ISIS, there’s no hero for us to champion, nor is there a single, simple villain to rally against. So instead we ignore it.

Yemeni women fighters supporting the Shiite Houthi rebels stand holding rocket-propelled grenades and rocket-launchers, during a September anti-Saudi rally in the capital Sanaa.Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

The civil war in Yemen began in September 2014 when rebels from the Shiite Houthi community, who enjoy the support of Iran, seized the capital, Sanaa, and drove out the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. But the country has been unstable since the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh and installed Hadi, formerly Saleh vice-president, in his place. Of course, being a deeply poor country with a young population, one of the world’s highest rates of personal-gun ownership, and a looming water crisis, it wasn’t exactly a paragon of stability to begin with. A coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia intervened in the conflict in early 2015, and the U.S. has — until recently, at least — supported that intervention, even as it has made matters in Yemen much, much worse.

Given the inherent shallowness of the debate format, even if Wallace had decided to ask the candidates about Yemen on Wednesday, we wouldn’t have gotten much: Most likely, Trump would have reiterated that Crooked Hillary and surrenderer-in-chief Obama let the Iranians and ISIS take over Yemen as part of their plot to weaken America for their globalist paymasters, and Clinton would have spouted some boilerplate about working with our allies to safeguard our national security and defeat the terrorists. The audience watching at home would have come out of the exchange, at best, as ignorant as they were going in. But if we forego debating the American role in Yemen, in so doing we avoid a bigger conversation about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance is at the heart of the matter, and this debate is to some extent really about that relationship. The anti-interventionist position on Yemen, held by many on the left as well as some contingents of conservatives and libertarians, is that the U.S. should never have signed on to support the Saudis’ scorched-earth campaign and should withdraw that support posthaste. While we’re at it, we should stop selling the Saudis arms altogether, given their predilection for misusing them while also funding dangerous militants and exporting fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology throughout the Muslim world, and given that we’re not nearly as dependent as we used to be on Saudi oil to meet our energy needs. If the U.S. wanted to dump the Saudis, disengaging from Yemen would be a good first step.

On the other side of the spectrum is the interventionist position espoused by the neoconservative Max Boot, which depicts the Houthis as a direct proxy of Iran and thus treats the recent attacks on American ships as Iranian belligerence. In this view, the U.S. must make a show of retaliatory force against the Houthis in order to send a message to Iran that the nuclear agreement doesn’t give Tehran carte blanche to try and expand its sphere of influence. Although it makes little material difference to the U.S. whether Yemen should be a Saudi or Iranian client, if you consider it a strategic imperative to contain Iran’s regional ambitions, you might favor getting more involved in Yemen, rather than less.

Both of these positions have their complications, however, which speak to the fact that making U.S. foreign policy is never as easy as its critics would like it to be. If one can imagine a more forthright version of Hillary Clinton, she might parry the anti-Saudi argument with the Kissingerian rejoinder that however distasteful it may be, disentangling ourselves from our longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia would be risky, difficult, and not without its downsides. If the U.S. were to stop supporting Saudi regional hegemony with weapons sales, the kingdom could act out in response, by escalating other proxy conflicts with Iran, say, or pursuing a nuclear weapon. Besides, it’s not like they couldn’t buy arms elsewhere. In theory, at least, arming the Saudis buys us some diplomatic leverage and Riyadh’s cooperation in counterterrorism activities. The balance of consequences from cutting them off might not be positive, even if it absolves the U.S. of culpability for the horrors in Yemen.

To the interventionists, hypothetical Hillary might say that Yemen is not nearly critical enough to our strategic interests to endanger American soldiers’ lives and keep it in the Saudi sphere — so a more aggressive intervention is not called for. Better to put an end to the violence through political and diplomatic pressure — an unsexy position, more easily stated than achieved, but perhaps the best course to take considering the living hell Yemen has already been through. It’s also the course the Obama administration has chosen, calling for a cease-fire and negotiations (on Monday, the parties to the conflict agreed to a 72-hour truce, but fighting has now resumed). That option has its downsides as well — it is certainly less thrilling than gunboat diplomacy and less morally satisfying than washing our hands of Saudi Arabia once and for all — which is why, again, these choices merit a great deal more public discussion.

The crisis in Yemen will be perhaps the second most important test case (after Syria) of the next president’s foreign-policy doctrine, particularly their approach to the Middle East and their views on whether it’s better to try to resolve foreign conflicts with American hard power, coalition building, coercive diplomacy, or not at all. But we’re not having that debate: We can’t, because one party has fielded an unfit candidate with no real understanding of policy. If Hillary Clinton looks increasingly likely to be our next president, it is just as likely that we will have no clue what she plans to do about this and many other “hot spots” before she takes the oath of office.