Lloyd Austin and the War on Yemen
Mark Perry has written an excellent report on Lloyd Austin’s policy views. Among other things, Perry finds that Austin was strongly opposed to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen when he was in charge of Centcom:
What’s crucial is what Austin did in the aftermath of these failures, particularly after the Saudi intervention in Yemen. “Lloyd was enraged by the Saudi intervention,” a senior officer who worked with Austin at Centcom said, “because we [the Americans] were quietly supporting the Houthi fight against AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] at the time.” Austin was so angered by the Saudi move, this now-retired officer said, that he considered formally requesting that the Obama administration denounce the intervention. “We waved him off of that,” the officer with whom I spoke at the time said. But Austin also predicted the troubles the Saudis would face and made his views known to senior civilians at the Pentagon. “He thought the Saudis would lose in Yemen and that, before it was all over, we would have to bail them out,” this same officer noted. Austin was right on both counts: The Saudis found themselves mired in Yemen and dependent on U.S. intelligence assets in their fight.
The Obama administration’s support for the war on Yemen was one of its greatest and most destructive errors. If the president and the Secretary of Defense had listened to Austin’s advice and refused to support the war, that could have been avoided. It reflects very well on Austin’s judgment that he understood that the Saudi intervention wasn’t going to succeed. One of my concerns about Austin is that he would be too indulgent of the Saudis and the UAE because of his Centcom experience, just as Mattis had been when he was Defense Secretary, but this record suggests just the opposite. At the very least, that bodes well for how the Biden administration will act in Yemen. Austin’s view of the war on Yemen helps make sense of why Biden selected him.
Perry’s report includes additional details about Austin and the Yemen debate that deserves more attention:
As crucially, the Saudi intervention marked the first time that Austin would cross swords with then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who slammed the military for its failure to fully support the Saudi effort. The reason the Saudis didn’t notify Centcom of their plans ahead of time, McCain said, was because “they believe we are siding with Iran.” The rebuke didn’t sit well with senior U.S. officers at Centcom or at the U.S. Special Operations Command, who had been quietly supporting the anti-AQAP effort. And it didn’t sit well with Lloyd Austin. A senior commander who served with Austin said that McCain purposely “blindsided” Austin in order to make the Obama White House look bad. Siding with Iran? McCain, this officer suggested, knew better: “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans,” the officer told me at the time, “is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think—that it was a bad idea.”
McCain was one of the most vocal supporters of U.S. involvement in the war until his death in 2018, and his eagerness for even greater involvement was part of a decades-long record of getting major foreign policy issues wrong. The fact that Austin kept being on the opposite side of these policy debates from McCain is a useful reminder of just how reckless McCain was and how sensible Austin apparently is. Austin’s nomination should receive careful scrutiny, and there are still more questions for him to answer at his confirmation hearing, but reports like this one suggest that Biden has made a good choice.