Home/Daniel Larison/The Mindless U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

The Mindless U.S. Support for the War on Yemen

He doesn’t put it quite this way, but Aaron David Miller points out the bad U.S. habit of being pulled into backing its reckless clients’ behavior:

But what’s more intriguing is how Washington tends to buy into policies that appear to serve its friends’ agendas while undermining America’s own.

Nowhere is that principle more clearly demonstrated than in U.S. support for the Saudi campaign to check the advances of the Houthis and their allies in Yemen. In the space of only two months the U.S. has managed to acquiesce in and support a Saudi-driven air campaign that has not worked, alienated more Yemeni actors than it’s converted and turned what had been a principally domestic matter into a regional proxy war. Indeed the Saudis are stuck in Yemen. But so is America.

Miller gets this part mostly right. U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led war on Yemen over the last three months is the product of a foolish desire to “reassure” and “support” client governments even when they are pursuing destructive and reckless policies that ultimately harm U.S. security. The fear in Washington that these useless clients might feel “abandoned” is strong enough to make the U.S. back them up no matter how short-sighted and damaging their actions may be. The interests of the U.S. and the Gulf client states are at odds in both Syria and Yemen, but instead of acknowledging that and acting accordingly the U.S. traps itself into backing dangerous policies that don’t serve any American interests. These clients’ policies are being made more often than not with total disregard for our interests. Clients such as these don’t deserve support or “reassurance,” and it’s embarrassing that Washington is eager to offer both.

How did the U.S. get into this fix? The Obama administration is most responsible for going along and assisting in a military campaign that it didn’t understand, but Congress has contributed to the problem by having said and done nothing about this. The only thing that any members of Congress had to say about the U.S. role in Yemen was that it had been too little and too slow, and there has been no meaningful criticism or opposition to the U.S. role or to the war in general from anyone in either party. Members of both parties buy into the propaganda line that the Saudis are combating Iranian “expansionism,” and as long as they perceive the attack on Yemen to be an “anti-Iranian” effort they have no problem with it or the horrible consequences that the attack has had. If the U.S. is “stuck” with the Saudis in Yemen, that is because our political leaders are embracing the same lie that the Saudis are telling themselves about resisting an Iranian “takeover” of the country. The U.S. could extricate itself very quickly if it simply refused to lend any support to the campaign, but the foolish desire to back our clients up regardless of their actions keeps prevailing.

Miller’s argument goes a bit awry here:

However wrongheaded it’s turning out to be, it’s fairly easy to see why the Saudis launched their campaign against the Houthis. Think about Yemen as within the sphere of a kind of Saudi Monroe Doctrine.

It may be easy to see why the Saudis have launched their campaign (paranoia about Iran, sectarian hostility to any and all Shi’ites, etc.), but “Saudi Monroe Doctrine” is not a very helpful way to think about it. Part of the problem is that Miller is recycling a common misunderstanding of what the Monroe Doctrine was. The key principles of the Monroe Doctrine were respect for the independence and sovereignty of our neighbors and non-interference in their affairs. These were principles we expected the governments of Europe not to violate without incurring our hostility. The meaning of the doctrine was ignored and then completely turned on its head in later decades, but that is what Monroe was proposing. Obviously, Yemen’s independence and sovereignty are annoyances to the Saudis rather than something they wish to respect. Instead of non-interference, Riyadh is very much interested in interfering to reinstall the former president and to exercise influence through him in Yemen. It would be more accurate that the Saudis are engaged in the sort of restoration of authoritarian rule that Monroe was warning Restoration-era European governments against attempting in Latin America.

Miller continues:

Washington is now directly associated, however unfairly, with a humanitarian disaster that has claimed at least 2,500 lives and added to the woes of an already failing state.

Yes, the U.S. is implicated in this, but there’s nothing remotely unfair about it. When a patron directly backs its clients in an attack on another country and endorses the blockade imposed by those clients, it becomes at least partly responsible for the effects of its clients’ actions. If anything, Miller is understating the damage done to Yemen by the war and blockade, which has deprived Yemenis of all basic necessities and has brought many parts of the country to the brink of famine. The U.S. continues to help make all this happen, and to make matters worse it has done it all for nothing.

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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