Home/Daniel Larison/The War on Yemen and the Administration’s “Gnawing Concerns”

The War on Yemen and the Administration’s “Gnawing Concerns”

Daniel Benjamin comments on the state of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Here he talks about the war on Yemen:

In Yemen, the Saudi campaign against the Houthi insurgents has become the signature initiative for Riyadh’s new and emboldened foreign policy. The United States has voiced hedged support for the Saudi effort — primarily an effort at alliance maintenance, which was a necessity against the backdrop of the nuclear negotiations.

But behind the scenes, Washington has gnawing concerns about the Saudi war effort [bold mine-DL]. The bombing runs are killing civilians in appalling numbers, and a country that hovers on desperation has been plunged into a humanitarian disaster. The United States is trying to refine Saudi targeting, but the carnage remains ghastly, and the Saudi claim that the Houthis are nothing more than an Iranian proxy has also worn thin.

Benjamin makes some good points in the article, but I have to question the assumption that U.S. support for the war was ever a “necessity” for maintaining the relationship or for the sake of the nuclear deal. The Saudis have not always supported every U.S. intervention, and in some cases they have been very much opposed, but the relationship remained intact. A client isn’t obliged to endorse everything that its patron does, nor is a patron obliged to support every policy that its client pursues. If the Saudis didn’t approve of making a nuclear deal, that wouldn’t have derailed the negotiations. The U.S. didn’t have to back the Saudi intervention in Yemen. The administration chose to do this when it was not obliged to, and it was a terrible decision.

As I said earlier in the week, it is hard to take these “gnawing concerns” seriously. If the U.S. were so concerned about the effects of the bombing campaign, it could either cut back on the assistance it is providing or it could publicly criticize the targeting of civilian areas. Helping the Saudis to “refine” their targeting is not very useful when it seems plain enough that the Saudis have been deliberately targeting civilian areas for months, which is why the civilian casualties from the campaign are so high. These repeated anonymous professions of worry and concern come across too much as a belated and increasingly desperate attempt to disavow the consequences of a war that the administration foolishly joined without considering the risks and costs. The administration wants credit from the Saudis by enabling the war, but it doesn’t want to be held responsible for the horrific effects that the war is having on Yemeni civilians, and so we get these behind-the-scenes laments that change nothing.

It’s good that “the Saudi claim that the Houthis are nothing more than an Iranian proxy has also worn thin,” but then it should never have been taken seriously and indulged in the first place. This was a piece of Saudi propaganda used to sell their war, and it should have been obvious to our government that it wasn’t a credible claim. Unfortunately, they were too preoccupied trying to “reassure” our despotic clients that they went along with it when it mattered most.

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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