Trump’s Yemen Policy Is Immoral and Counterproductive

Houthi militants in Sanaa in January (Reuters photo: Khaled Abdullah)
Slaughter of the Houthis, indiscriminate bombing, famine, cholera — as recompense to the Saudis for the Iran deal?

In his final year in office, President Obama’s foreign policy featured the bombing of seven Islamic countries by the U.S. military. Despite fears (and hopes) that President Trump would withdraw America from the world stage and institute a fortress-America foreign policy, the new guard has put Obama’s foreign policy on autopilot. The most significant adjustment Trump made was to give more discretion to his generals. The rate of bombing has increased in all seven nations.

Nowhere is this policy more craven and disastrous than in Yemen, where the U.S. has backed Saudi Arabia’s crusade to re-install Sunni general Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in power. The Saudis say they cannot abide a Yemen controlled by Houthis, adherents of the Zayd sect of Shia Islam, who rose up to stake their claim in a government that had excluded them from power. It is another civil war, like Syria’s, in which the U.S. seeks to aid the overthrow of a Shia-led government, without also making the local branches of al-Qaeda the main beneficiaries of the subsequent power vacuum. The Saudis are much less discriminating about these things.

For more than two years the U.S. has provided serious logistical support and intelligence to the Saudis. Late in Obama’s term, a small number of special operations forces were put on the ground in Yemen. Trump significantly increased the pace of bombing in March of this year, dropping more payload in one week than the Obama administration had dropped in Yemen in any one year. The Saudi campaign has featured indiscriminate bombing — including of hospitals and food-production facilities — along with the use of U.S.-provided cluster bombs. The Houthis are now well-entrenched in Southern Yemeni cities, and the battle has reached a stalemate.

The Houthi-led government of Yemen cannot project power against the United States and is no threat to it. The only threat against the United States that can ever come from Yemen is the breakdown of authority and the establishment of al-Qaeda training camps. In the past, we’ve been able to harass these camps under a succession of different Yemeni governments. But in the chaos of this conflict, al-Qaeda’s numbers in Yemen are growing.

It’s a conflict whose human cost makes a lie of every moral sentiment deployed to justify American action in the Middle East. Millions of Yemeni are displaced by this war. Saudi blockades have led to the worst famine conditions in the world, and famine conditions have led to the worst cholera outbreak in decades, affecting some 300,000. We are not horrified by the slaughter; we are merely horrified at displeasing our ally Saudi Arabia.

This war makes a lie of moralized U.S. foreign-policy rhetoric nearly everywhere. We are supposed to be aghast that the Putin government backs a “butcher” such as Assad, while we help the Saudis bomb hospitals and effect a policy of attrition through starvation in one of the poorest nations on earth? Wars have real moral costs, and those in Yemen are particularly high.

It’s a conflict whose human cost makes a lie of every moral sentiment deployed to justify American action in the Middle East.

The Obama administration would occasionally leak to reporters its “frustration” over Saudi Arabia’s actions. But this frustration never slowed the pace of American cooperation or ever impinged on U.S.-Saudi relations. The war increasingly looks like a way for the United States to apologize to the Saudis for making a deal with Iran over nuclear weapons.

But, the U.S. has substantial pull over Saudi Arabia, and we should use it to persuade the Saudis to loosen their grip on Yemen and begin bringing this conflict to an end.

Trump received a potentate’s welcome in Saudi Arabia, with his image burnished everywhere. But Saudi Arabia is a source of headaches almost everywhere. Their promotion of Wahabbist ideology and generous funding of extremist clerics across the world results in terror and blowback across the globe, from Iraq, to Libya, to India and Europe. What will we reap from this disgraceful little war?


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