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Obama’s Disgraceful Enabling of the War on Yemen

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

This report on internal administration debates over Yemen is as infuriating as it is unsurprising:

The White House does not want to anger Saudi Arabia, a vital, oil-rich ally already unhappy with President Barack Obama’s decision to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran. At the same time, what many hoped would be a short Saudi-led campaign [bold mine-DL] against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who overthrew Yemen’s government, is now entering its eighth month with no end in sight.

There was no reason to assume that the Saudi-led campaign would be short or successful. Even superficial familiarity with modern Yemeni history would have been enough to know that. The goals of their intervention were unrealistic from the start, and have only become more so as the campaign has dragged on and the suffering of the civilian population has increased. The U.S. backed the intervention anyway in order to keep Riyadh and the other reckless clients happy, but as so often happens the decision to indulge and enable bad clients has only encouraged them in their worst behavior. It’s also not true that Saudi Arabia is a “vital” ally. At best, it is a tiresome client state whose interests are increasingly diverging from ours, as this conflict demonstrates very well. Linking the U.S. with their disgraceful war effort is one of the great unforced errors of the entire Obama era. It served no U.S. interests, but it has aided the cause of jihadists in Yemen and deepened resentment against the U.S. throughout the country.

The administration is split between people who realize U.S. support for the war on Yemen is a disaster but won’t do anything about it and those that care more about placating a group of despotic governments regardless of the cost. At the moment, the latter are still prevailing, but it’s not clear what would change if they lost the debate. The story repeatedly claims that the administration is “frustrated” with the Saudis, but there is absolutely no evidence of this when one looks at the assistance that the U.S. continues to provide the Saudi-led coalition. What we see instead is a lot of blame-shifting and a desperate effort to avoid accountability for the war crimes that the U.S.-backed coalition commits in Yemen. The Obama administration keeps wringing its hands to the press about how unhappy it is with the Saudis’ war, but it has done nothing to limit or end its involvement in that war. The conceit that reducing U.S. support for this indefensible war would make things worse is just an excuse to avoid making the hard decision to risk breaking with the Saudis. It is very likely that the possibility of a cut-off of U.S. aid may be the only thing that will force Washington’s clients to halt their campaign and lift the blockade, and it is something that the administration is apparently not even considering.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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