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Who Would Support an Indefensible War?

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

Max Abrahms made an interesting observation last night:

The war on Yemen has de facto support from both parties in Washington and has been enabled reliably by both the Obama and Trump administrations, but very few people seem willing to defend that policy publicly. Except for occasionally publishing propaganda pieces by Saudi government representatives, the reliably hawkish Wall Street Journal editorial page says virtually nothing on the subject. There is not much of the usual cheerleading that we are used to seeing when a U.S. client government is waging an unjust war on its neighbors. The war is simply ignored here in the U.S. for the most part, and its tacit supporters are no exception. It is understandable that there would be few people interested in publicly trying to defend the indefensible, but it is still somewhat remarkable that a war that no one can honestly justify commands so much automatic backing.

Whatever one may have thought back in the spring of 2015 about the coalition’s chances of success, it became obvious a long time ago that they have neither the competence nor the ability to achieve their stated goals. They certainly haven’t been able to achieve them at an acceptable cost, and the evils that the Saudi-led intervention has created far exceed the ones it was supposed to prevent. No one can justify what they have done to Yemen, and in the process the Saudis have made their own country less secure than it was before they attacked. The Saudi-led war on Yemen has been a textbook example of how foreign military intervention intensifies and prolongs a conflict and makes everyone worse off. It has not only created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but it has also given a boost to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the local ISIS affiliate. No U.S. interests are served by this war, some are being harmed by it, and yet it has proven quite difficult to end U.S. support for it.

One reason that there are so few public defenders of U.S. involvement is that there don’t have to be many. The U.S. involved itself in the war without debate or authorization under Obama, and no one in that administration needed or wanted to make a public case for a policy that would just call attention to a terrible decision. The public didn’t need to be mobilized behind unauthorized involvement in a foreign war that they knew nothing about, and Obama remained conspicuously silent about it through the end of his second term. Obama’s partisan critics at the time were much more likely to fault him for not doing enough for the Saudis than to attack him for lending them support, so the administration was not forced to explain the decision to back the war.

When virtually no one talks about U.S. involvement in a war, there is no need for partisans and loyalists to defend a policy that few are even aware of and even fewer oppose. When a war is as shameful as this one, there aren’t many people interested in volunteering to make excuses for it. When taking sides in foreign conflicts is so often the unquestioned, default mode of U.S. foreign policy, supporters of intervention don’t need to make a case for doing what the government is automatically going to do anyway.

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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