Can a Hegemon Have a Principled Foreign Policy? Yemen Edition

American support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen may be appalled on a variety of grounds, most obviously humanitarian. At least tacit support for this kind of intervention is far from rare, though; America did not try to reverse Rwandan intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war, and we actively encouraged Ethiopian intervention in Somalia. Over the decades, we have condemned interventions that we wanted to stop and given various degrees of support to interventions that we thought were good ideas. There’s no neutral standard being imposed and there never was.

The two real questions regarding Yemen therefore are whether the intervention is actually a good idea in terms of the future of Yemen, and whether we have good reasons to support it even if it isn’t.

The first question looks like a pretty clear “no” at this point. Just from a humanitarian perspective, it’s a disaster. The Saudis don’t really seem to have any kind of a game plan – the intervention is a reflex reaction to increased Iranian influence on the Arabian peninsula, which the Saudis fear deeply – in part because of the impact such influence might have on their own Shiite minority. From a Saudi perspective, a Yemen that becomes a failed state where al Qaeda and the Islamic State find footholds may be preferable to a Yemen that tilts toward Tehran, and that may be exactly the Yemen we are going to get as the result of this intervention.

From an American perspective, of course, such an outcome would be terrible (to say nothing of what it would mean to the poor Yemenis). It goes without saying that the precedent isn’t one to crow about either; Iranian intervention to assist the Assad regime, and Russian intervention to re-install the ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, would be entirely justified according to the same principles justifying the Saudi intervention in Yemen. So why would we be doing this?

Well, it’s obvious why, isn’t it? We’re demonstrating to the Saudis that our eagerness to close a nuclear deal with Iran doesn’t mean we’re switching teams. We’re pretty explicitly indicating that we consider the Arabian Peninsula to be a Saudi sphere of influence and that we will support them in keeping any other power from gaining so much as a toehold. It’s an entirely cynical move, but not actually hard to understand.

This is just one of the burdens of being a global hegemon. Our intervention in Libya was substantially driven by the desire not to disappoint allies in Europe and the Gulf who saw friendly dictators deposed in the Arab Spring and didn’t want to send the message that they should have done what Gaddafi did instead. It has taken concerted effort to avoid being dragged even further into the Syrian civil war than we have been already. Yemen is the latest sordid episode. It’s easy to say we should stay out, or that we should try to mediate between the two sides instead of siding with Saudi Arabia – that these would be neutral postures and who could fault us for that? But they would not be perceived as neutral – they would be perceived, at least in the Gulf, as more evidence that we were tilting toward Tehran.

And we don’t want to give that impression – precisely because we are tilting more toward Tehran, and we want to minimize the cost of that change to our position with other powers that fear Iran. I am pessimistic generally about the idea that Iran could become an American ally, or even that we could expect helpful cooperation anywhere but in areas where Iran’s interests are being served directly. The Iranian regime’s ideology is fundamentally anti-American, and Iran gets no obvious benefits from an alignment with America. But by the same token, I favor an active effort to achieve normal relations. Our policy of hostility to Iran prevents us from cooperating where our interests do align, and, more importantly, leaves us hostage to other allies whose interests do not align with ours.

The depressing paradox is that if we were willing to leave ourselves hostage to Saudi demands, and scuttled the Iranian talks, we might have had the leverage to try to moderate this intervention – but at the price of a greater likelihood of war between America and Iran. Trying to achieve peace with Iran without alarming the Saudis, we’re reduced to endorsing the bloodbath in Yemen. And deciding we don’t give a fig for Saudi Arabia would offer unnecessary and unearned encouragement to Iran (who would take such an action as evidence that we support Iran’s own ambitions), and might well lead to even more strenuous action by the Saudis to maintain their own position.

None of the foregoing means that I support the Administration’s course on Yemen. I’m just doing taxonomy. Yemen is another one of those savage little wars of peace that hegemonic powers so often find themselves facilitating, frequently without any clear idea or even belief that they will have any beneficial effect. And hegemony itself is more a consequence of power than of policy, which is why it is so difficult to put down the poisoned chalice.

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12 Responses to Can a Hegemon Have a Principled Foreign Policy? Yemen Edition

  1. collin says:

    This is all too confusing but I am hoping the administration is reminding Saudia Arabia how poorly this is going. My guess is Saudia Arabia cried wolf on Yemen to the State Department and the administration simply stated it was not in our interests to pursue military options at this point. However, it is simpler to ‘assist’ Saudia Arabia efforts, remind them of the issues and remain close to them to control their impulses. (Admittingly I probably give State Department and military too much credit here.)

  2. Fran Macadam says:

    You’re right, but I think it’s clear that when direct war with Syria was averted, it triggered both aggression to Russia for helping spoil that war party. Direct war was defeated by the public opinion fallout, with various staged provocations of dubious credibility. But every action via support for proxies since shows that not for even a moment did the policy change, whether by hook or crook, and using ISIS and even feckless ally rebels as the nose of the camel into the Syrian tent as the excuse to start the western air war bombings now occurring.

  3. Johann says:

    A very realistic assessment of the Yemeni conundrum. But a strong US President could and should make a right decision and make the break with the Saudis on this.

  4. William Dalton says:

    We’re doing the Saudis no favors humoring their desire to be surrounded by Sunni radicals instead of allies of Iran. The Houthis in Yemen aren’t tied to Iran. But if working with them gives the best opportunity to end the present civil war in Yemen, the Saudis should be working with them as well as other interested parties, for the sake of peace on their own peninsula.

    And notice, too, the decision of Russia to abstain from the Security Council vote to forbid arms shipments to the Houthis. The message couldn’t be clearer – we don’t stand in the way of your intervention in Yemen and you don’t stand in the way of our intervention in Ukraine. So far, Russia’s intervention has been far less bloody and less destructive.

  5. andy says:

    So many good points and observations in this very informative article.
    Is the qualification in the last paragraph necessary in order to get the piece published?
    One wouldn’t expect an unqualified endorsement of Obama’s foreign policy from TAC, and the meat of the article certainly doesn’t lean that way. Are we so enmushed in team politics that it’s impossible to write an analysis without cheering for one’s home team?

  6. Hercules Furens says:

    … if we were willing to leave ourselves hostage to Saudi demands, and scuttled the Iranian talks, we might have had the leverage to try to moderate this intervention – but at the price of a greater likelihood of war between America and Iran.

    Actually, the Saudis can’t fight a war without our permission and assistance. They are tactically blind and logistically helpless without us. What you write only makes sense in world in which the US forbids itself to seek its own interest and enforce its will.

    That world exists, admittedly. It is the world in which Israel spits in our face with new settlements and new attacks on the Palestinians after taking our money and weapons, and in which the Saudis nurture and harbor terrorists.

    But rather than pretending that this self-imposed behavior is immutable, we should ask why we don’t change it.

    When it doesn’t do as we wish, why don’t we apply the sort of choke-hold to Israel that Israel regularly applies to Gaza? Why don’t we render the Saudis blind and helpless when they start a cruel, reckless war, particularly when all it takes is to stand aside, to not help?

  7. Marko says:


    I think Millman simply wanted to make clear that he does not “support”, but does “understand” the nature of US policy regarding Yemen. Which makes sense and seems pretty nonpartisan, besides he’s the TAC’s resident liberal anyway.

  8. Winston says:

    Will Yemen kill US economy?
    Water starved and angry Yemenis will do worse like take down Saudis at home. All you have to do is look at the map and see the likely possibility! And given how US depends on petrodollar, any support in creating a bigger problem for KSA in future will hit US home. I am amazed the DC is so oblivious to the writing on the wall.

    Note: Fix points out large contingent of Sauids army is Yemeni. This raises spectre of Indira Gandhi and Sikh issue in ME context.

    The Saudis are not bright birds. US however, should not be so deficient in seeing the big picture.

    The battle for the Middle East’s future begins in Yemen as Saudi Arabia jumps into the abyss
    YEMEN: Time running out for solution to water crisis
    Yemen Is Tearing Itself Apart Over Water

  9. Samuel Barry says:

    9/11 should have changed American foreign policy much more drastically than it did. Not only were the attackers themselves products of a Saudi-funded and -dominated turn to the right among Sunni Muslims globally, the vast majority of our post-9/11 interventions have been directed against Saudi clients or intellectual offspring. This was the case in Afghanistan, in the Iraqi insurgency, in Yemen, in Somalia, and in Syria.

    The deep contradictions of American hegemony should be ignored no longer. In Yemen, a mediated settlement that focuses the energy of the country against the Sunni extremists should be the US’ top priority. If this means “tilting toward Iran,” so be it.

  10. Myron Hudson says:

    Wow. I think you nail it in your 5th paragraph.

  11. Buzz Baldrin says:

    While I can’t dispute any fact or opinion in this article, I dislike its narrow acceptance of the rules of the War Party’s fight song: rah, rah, sis boom bah.

    Perhaps Mr. Millman should have noticed that, in many Asian lands, China is winning the game by peacefully scooping up oil, gas, minerals and trade deals from under the hegemon’s nose.

    All this yapping about hegemony in the War Party’s tongue re-enforces the language. That’s Sean Hannity’s job, not The American Conservatives.

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