Home/Daniel Larison/The U.S. Backs a War in Yemen It Doesn’t Understand

The U.S. Backs a War in Yemen It Doesn’t Understand

Micah Zenko notes that no one in the U.S. government has any idea of what the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is supposed to accomplish:

At least the Pentagon wasn’t trying to make things up. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command, was frank when asked what the purpose of the campaign was, stating, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Despite the astonishing acknowledgment that he did not know why the intervention was occurring and was only given a few hours’ advance notice, Austin declared himself “very encouraged that we have seen what we’ve seen here.”

As Zenko says, the U.S. is directly participating in this intervention. U.S. forces may not be dropping the bombs, but they are (mis)identifying the targets and refueling the attacking countries’ planes, and our government is endorsing the campaign without clearly understanding what it is intended to accomplish. It is superficially tempting to see this as an example of how regional powers can manage their own problems, but they aren’t doing this on their own. As it did in Libya, the U.S. is making an unnecessary war much easier for the governments that want to fight it. “Leading from behind” in practice means facilitating the reckless wars of allies and clients through ill-advised U.S. backing.

The official Saudi line is that they are intervening to “protect” Yemen and its people, which is as credible as having Israel claim that its periodic bombing campaigns in Gaza are intended to “protect” Gaza and its inhabitants. This “protection” will come at the expense of a great many Yemeni lives and it is presumably happening against the will of most people in Yemen, but so long as an unnecessary war is dressed up in the rhetoric of protecting the population it doesn’t seem to raise very many red flags.

Asher Orkaby reviews the history of a previous failed intervention in a Yemeni civil war in the 1960s, and reaches this conclusion:

With each falling bomb, the Yemeni population grows increasingly more sympathetic for the Houthi movement which is emerging as the Yemen’s heroic defenders against foreign elements looking to destroy the country. With both Saudi Arabia and Egypt announcing their intentions to commit ground troops to the northern highlands, it seems that both countries are playing with fire and ignoring their own history of failed military interventions in Yemen.

If the Houthis are seen as defending their country from foreign attack, it makes sense that this would only benefit them politically. When a country comes under attack, the population doesn’t normally reward the attackers by falling in line behind their political goals. We should assume that most Yemenis won’t want any part of the “protection” that the Saudis are pretending to offer.

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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