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The Exceptionally Weak Case for Supporting the War on Yemen

Husain Haqqani makes a tedious, unpersuasive case for continued U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen:

But from the U.S. perspective, losing Yemen to Iran permanently would only enlarge the threat Tehran poses to U.S. interests. If one side must win Yemen’s civil war, it would be in America’s interest that it is the legitimate government backed by U.S. allies rather than the Houthis backed by Iran.

Almost everything Haqqani says about the war is wrong or misleading. Yemen is in no danger of being “lost” to Iran. The Houthis are still not Iran’s proxies, and war supporters’ frequent repetition of this falsehood over the last few years has not made it any more true. None of the warring parties in Yemen is capable of winning the war outright, and continuing the war risks causing massive loss of life among civilians that can still be avoided. The “legitimate” government has virtually no support in the north or south of the country, and any enduring peace settlement will have to reflect that. There is no way that a government that is widely loathed can be put back in charge of all of Yemen, and the U.S. needs to recognize that the “legitimate” government lost its legitimacy in the eyes of most Yemenis years ago.

Haqqani objects to criticism of coalition war crimes:

The humanitarian criticism of the Arab coalition’s tactics has also led most observers to ignore that the fight against the Houthis is backed by a UN resolution supporting the restoration of the legitimate government’s control over Yemen.

Critics of the war don’t ignore that the Security Council passed this resolution. We are well aware that the resolution gave a green light to the coalition to cause massive suffering in pursuit of an unachievable political goal. The problem is that supporters of the war keep clinging to UNSCR 2216 as if its outdated and inflexible set of demands from three and a half years ago is still a valid basis for a political settlement today. That resolution has given the coalition political cover for waging an atrocious war that they cannot win, and it has encouraged the coalition and the Hadi government to reject any compromise that doesn’t get them everything.

Haqqani’s idea for what post-war Yemen should look like is completely unrealistic. He writes:

Consolidation of control of any part of Yemen by the Houthis would be as destabilizing as the rise of Hezbollah has been in Lebanon.

No matter what else happens, the Houthis are going to retain control of at least some of northern Yemen. That is where they are from, and there is no way that they are going to be forced to yield that part of the country. Insisting on depriving them of control of any part gives them no incentive to negotiate or compromise. If they can expect to have nothing once the war ends, they are going to keep the war going for as long as they can.

Haqqani also complains that critics of the war focus too much on coalition war crimes:

But the threat posed by the Houthis has been eclipsed by denunciations of the Saudi air campaign against them, which is blamed for avoidable civilian casualties. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent certification to Congress that the Saudis and other Arab allies were making greater efforts to protect civilians has not dented that criticism.

The U.N. has reported several times that coalition airstrikes are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties. The Yemen Data Project has determined that roughly a third of all airstrikes hit non-military targets, and strikes on non-military targets have spiked upwards in the last few months in connection with the Hodeidah offensive. Opponents of the war denounce the air campaign because it is indiscriminate and has resulted in numerous documented war crimes against the civilian population. We also denounce it because it is the part of the conflict that the U.S. government actively enables through refueling and arms sales. In other words, critics of U.S. involvement focus on the part of the war that our government makes possible and therefore has the ability to stop. All parties to the war are guilty of war crimes, but our government aids and abets Saudi coalition war crimes and those are the ones that we can do something about. That is why critics of our support for the war call attention to them. The bogus certification offered by Pompeo has not “dented” our criticism because we can see that it is a lie. The coalition isn’t meeting any of the conditions created by Congress, and the only way to claim that they are is to ignore the extensive evidence of the coalition’s flagrant disregard for civilian lives.

The only realistic way to end the conflict is to accept that the coalition intervention has failed in its main objectives, namely the expulsion of the Houthis from Sanaa and the “restoration” of Hadi, end U.S. support for the coalition to force them to negotiate, and then support a diplomatic process that takes into account the interests of all Yemenis. The U.S. needs to lean on the governments that it arms and supports to halt their campaign, and the quickest way to do that is to halt all military assistance and arms sales right away. The antiwar resolution H.Con.Res. 138 offers an opportunity to do just that.

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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