Home/Daniel Larison/The Bad U.S. Foreign Policy Habits on Display in the War on Yemen

The Bad U.S. Foreign Policy Habits on Display in the War on Yemen

Amir Handjani berates the Obama administration for taking sides in Yemen:

Pakistan and Turkey, both countries with which Saudi Arabia and Gulf States enjoy close security ties, have declined requests by the Arab coalition to provide forces to the campaign. They refused to take the bait of a rising Shia power threatening Sunni interests. It would have been wise for the United States to do the same. Making an enemy of the Houthis—a sizeable portion of Yemen’s population, just adds to the long list of sectarian conflicts in the Islamic world, where the United States has made an adversary of one Muslim group at the expense of another.

There are no good reasons for the U.S. to be siding with the Saudis as they pummel their poorer neighbor, but the bad reasons that have been given for supporting the war point us to several bad foreign policy habits that the U.S. needs to learn how to break. The U.S. tends to attach too much ideological and international significance to most armed conflicts, and therefore tends to imagine that it has interests and “values” at stake when it does not. That drives the U.S. to pick sides based on its original misunderstanding of the conflict, which as often as not unwittingly puts it on the side of its own enemies or puts the U.S. in a position where its involvement directly benefits them. Because of its numerous allies and clients around the world, our leaders seem to feel compelled to back up allies and clients in whatever ill-advised intervention the latter choose to launch, and our government takes their enemies as our own even when the latter have done nothing to us to warrant our involvement. Even though the U.S. has the ability to remain aloof from the conflicts that its allies and clients want to fight, it allows itself to be roped in to contributing to these conflicts in one way or another so that it cannot be accused of “abandoning” them. The impulse to meddle in conflicts that have nothing to do with us, the bizarre need to take sides in those same conflicts, and the misguided desire to show “solidarity” with reckless clients are all on display here.

In the case of Yemen, the U.S. has chosen to view a largely local conflict driven by grievances and rivalries inside Yemen as part of a larger regional conflict and has therefore joined the “anti-Iranian” side. Washington is backing the Saudis because it fears that it needs to “reassure” them of U.S. support, and to that end endorses a reckless and destructive policy. The administration has done this despite the fact that the Houthis, the group that U.S. clients are attacking, were not enemies of the United States, and it has done this despite the fact that this group is an enemy of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S. sometimes takes sides in conflicts because it mistakenly thinks that it needs to support whichever group is hostile to one of its enemies. In this case, the administration has outdone itself by taking sides against the enemy of our enemy for the dubious reason that some U.S. client governments want to attack them.

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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