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It’s Not Too Late to Do the Right Thing in Yemen

Trump can bring an end to this awful war. But he needs to understand there's only way that will ever happen.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are committed to continuing their U.S.-supported military intervention into Yemen’s civil war, the coalition leaders announced Monday. This comes despite battlefield setbacks and broad condemnation of the intervention’s methods, which have resulted in high civilian casualties, widespread food shortages, epidemic disease, and credible accusations of war crimes.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, the Trump administration intends to open talks with the Houthi rebel forces that the Saudi-led coalition is targeting. Negotiations will take place in Oman, and the White House is reportedly pushing Riyadh to participate. But Saudi cooperation remains uncertain, as the Saudi-supported president of Yemen, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is thought to be playing an obstructionist role.

Diplomacy will be necessary to bring peace to Yemen, and in that sense, the administration’s plan here is prudent. If the Houthis and their coalition of enemies can be convinced to negotiate, that will be a welcome sign of possible progress towards alleviating the world’s most acute humanitarian crisis. But fostering diplomacy is not Washington’s only—or even best—option here. The more pressing course of action, which also has the likely merit of more predictable results, is to end U.S. support for the coalition intervention entirely.

Talks are good, but their outcome and timeline are uncertain. It could be months or even years before a deal is reached, and that’s assuming Saudi Arabia can be brought to the table at all. Cutting off American assistance, by contrast, would effectively undercut Monday’s recommitment to war. It might even force Riyadh to get serious about negotiations.

Ending U.S. military involvement in Yemen would be a reversal for President Trump, but it would be a politically popular one. Polling shows most Americans oppose our continued involvement in this conflict, especially because of the close partnership with the brutal government of Saudi Arabia. Congress, too, is unusually united on this front, having forced Trump this past spring to issue his second ever veto to block S.J.Res.7, a “resolution to direct the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress.” On public opinion and constitutional process alike, the case is there for extricating the United States from this brutal civil war half a world away.

The strategic case is strong, too, both in terms of American security and the prospect of returning Yemen to some semblance of normalcy and peace. The Houthi rebels whom the U.S.-backed coalition is fighting are fundamentally a local threat. Their ambition is control of Yemen, not attacks on the United States.

Thus Washington’s actions are not protecting American interests, because none are at stake. What they are doing is making a bad situation worse, helping Riyadh squeeze the life out of one of the poorest nations in the Middle East and even contributing to power vacuums and illicit arms markets that allow the local al-Qaeda branch to flourish. And unlike the Houthis, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is interested in attacking Western targets, which means this counterproductive intervention may actually make us less safe. It is foolish, dangerous, and inhumane to continue enabling such chaos.

It is no hyperbole to say that the intervention and all its attendant ills could not continue—or, at least, could not continue at anything near their current scope—without Washington’s involvement. That means it is within our power to scale down and even end this horrific war. This is a war of the executive branch’s making, and it is a war from which the executive can withdraw immediately. The president can stop requiring our military to facilitate the Saudi-led coalition’s horrors. In doing so, he may well entice them towards meaningful diplomatic moves.

Trump should have gotten the United States out of Yemen’s fight when Congress gave him the chance, but it is not too late to right this mistake. His team is correct to pursue diplomacy, but he must realize that America’s exit is what will give those talks teeth.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.