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.