That was how ABC News’s Jon Karl reacted yesterday to Josh Earnest’s assertion that Yemen remains a model for counterterrorism.
In fact, Karl was so astounded that he asked Earnest to clarify.
The White House press secretary dutifully responded:
What the United States will do and has done is work to try to support the central government, build up the capacity of local fighters, and use our own technological and military capabilities to apply pressure on the extremists there.
There are a few problems with this strategy. First, Yemen’s “central government” no longer exists. Second, Yemen’s “local fighters” are divided between the Houthi rebels, al-Qaeda, and regional separatists. Third, with the CIA and Pentagon having evacuated Yemen, ground-level U.S. “military capabilities” are almost nonexistent.
Moreover, Yemen is now a regional war zone.
After all, a coalition of Sunni governments is now pursuing Operation “Storm of Resolve” (a title perhaps designed to repudiate President Obama’s “steady resolve” strategy) to restore Yemen’s deposed president, Mansour Hadi.
To be sure, a movement of regional actors to check the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels seems positive. But there’s one problem. Beyond intelligence/logistics support, America isn’t directly involved. And that means the U.S. will have little influence over what the Sunni alliance actually does in Yemen.
And that leads to another problem.
Because while U.S. interests in Yemen center on restraining al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (and now ISIS), the Sunni governments are fixated on Iran. As I’ve explained before, terrified by Iran’s growing influence, the Sunni governments are rolling the dice. In turn, with Iran promising to counter the Sunni military operations, the risk of a wider military conflagration in the region is significant. America’s absence makes it far more likely that the Sunni monarchies will restore de facto alliances with Salafi-jihadist groups and pursue policies that exacerbate the sociopolitical conditions that have helped Yemen become a breeding ground for terrorism.
This growing chaos only underlines the ultimate truth of American policy in the Middle East.
The truth is that U.S. policy success isn’t measured solely by what actors do, but also by what they don’t do. Having essentially ceded Iraq to Iran in pursuit of his nuclear deal and ignored allies’ concerns about that deal, President Obama has greatly weakened his regional influence. And U.S. allies are detaching their policies from American interests. As I’ve explained before, with a nuclear arms race in the Middle East looming, the consequences of this detachment are potentially catastrophic.
Yet, led by foreign-policy luminaries like Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, and Valerie Jarrett (a.k.a. “the Oracle”), Obama is confident that his detachment is good strategy. Correspondingly, Earnest’s comments yesterday weren’t a symptom of political spin, but rather a signifier of immense, albeit genuine, delusion. The White House genuinely believes that Middle Eastern stability is best served by American hesitation.
Reality begs to disagree.