Commentary Magazine

Yemen and the Ideologue’s Luxury

AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

The Senate voted down a resolution on Tuesday aimed at ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It was a bitter defeat, but not a humiliating one. Despite their failure, advocates for this measure insisted that the support of 44 senators was vindicating enough. For advocates of American retrenchment whose ascendancy was supposedly heralded by the rise of Donald Trump, times are tough, and they’ll take what they can get.

The measure—sponsored by ideologically divergent characters ranging from Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Bernie Sanders to Republican Sen. Mike Lee—attracted the support of some prominent Democratic lawmakers, some with their eyes on 2020. What’s more, it was a noble albeit doomed attempt by Congress to exercise its power to authorize American military involvement. Such constitutional authority has fallen out of favor with lawmakers as America’s inviolable commitments abroad have grown less popular over the decades. In the end, though, the effort to end America’s aid to Saudi Arabia, which has taken the form of refueling warplanes and sharing intelligence, was a minority proposition.

Both Sanders and Lee framed the vote as a chance for Congress to take ownership of its war-making prerogative, but that seems more like a pretext to register their dissatisfaction with a war that is being waged indiscriminately and without regard for civilian life. The conflict that needs Congressional authorization is the war in Syria. There, hundreds of U.S. forces are deployed in pursuit of a complex mission of deterrence and support. Occasionally, they engage in combat not only with militia fighters but with sovereign Syrian forces and their allies, including Kremlin-backed Russian mercenaries, which is in no conceivable way covered by the post-9/11 resolution authorizing the use of force against al-Qaeda.

But the Murphy/Sanders/Lee bill’s sponsors don’t want to sanction the conflict in Yemen (or Syria, for that matter); they want Congress to withdraw support for these missions and force the president into retreat. It is not as though this bill’s authors lack pragmatic alternatives, like the measure backed by Yemen war critic, Republican Sen. Todd Young, which would tie U.S. support to evidence provided by Riyadh indicating that they are scaling back the mission in Yemen.

Upon this resolution’s failure, the lawmakers who supported it vented their frustrations. “This war is deeply immoral and making America less safe,” Murphy wrote. Sen. Kamala Harris called the war a “humanitarian crisis.” Sanders called it a “humanitarian disaster.” They’re both correct, but that assessment does not address the strategic imperatives at play in Yemen. Sen. Dianne Feinstein insisted that it is “time we separate ourselves from this bloodshed,” which is a rather radical departure from her position on the conflict in Yemen just a few years ago.

In 2015, Feinstein insisted that Barack Obama had been overly cautious in the region. “We need some special operations in these countries, on the ground, more than just advisors,” Feinstein told CBS News specifically about the brewing Yemeni civil war. She added that America needed to be “more pronounced” in supporting its allies in the region, including Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The desire to let the Saudi-led coalition take care of the hard work of beating back both terrorist networks and Iranian proxy forces in Yemen wasn’t an especially controversial position at the time. Indeed, the vital strategic necessity of that mission was inarguable.

President Obama’s reluctance to commit the United States to anything beyond the occasional drone strike on rogue targets in Yemen was understandable, if ill-advised. But the rise of ISIS, culminating in the rapid seizure of vast swaths of Iraqi territory in the first six months of 2014, changed Obama’s calculus. In September of 2014, an Iran-armed and funded insurgency sacked the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, seizing the levers of power and forcing the largely Sunni government to regroup elsewhere in the country.

The threat posed by this insurgency was immense. Yemen seemed to be following a trajectory forged by Libya, which had recently become yet another failed state in the region where Islamist militias could gain a foothold. The Houthi-led regime in Sana’a was overtly hostile toward America’s counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen and rebuffed Washington’s obsequious overtures of friendship. The success of the Iranian proxy group represented Tehran’s latest victory following dramatic gains by Iran-backed proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The shifting balance of power in the region toward Shiite-dominated Iran compelled America’s traditionally Sunni partners in Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi threaten to take matters into their own hands (which, a few months later, they did).

Most critically, after the fall of Sana’a, the Houthis were expected to turn toward Aden, where the former president was believed to have fled. Aden is a strategic port close to the vital Bab al-Mandab Strait, the two-mile-wide northbound shipping lane of which is Yemeni territory. More than 60 commercial ships transit this strait on a daily basis on their way to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea, and Europe. Providing Iran with the capacity to shut down, mine, or harass shipping in this strait represented an intolerable threat to American national interests.

If Barack Obama, a president genuinely committed to American modesty on the world stage, consented to support an allied intervention in the Yemeni civil war, it stands to reason that almost any American politician with an ounce of concern for U.S. national interests would have done the same. Congressional representatives have the luxury of critiquing the value of the American mission in Yemen, in part, because the conduct of the war by its Arab allies has been bloody and unsavory. The alternative, however, is direct involvement. Non-intervention is not an option, much as the members on Capitol Hill might like it to be.

It should induce some introspection on the part of reflexive anti-interventionists that the last three consecutive presidents have promised to scale back America’s power projection abroad only to adopt their predecessor’s extroverted foreign policy. Extroversion is the practical position; the default result of a sober cost/benefit analysis that compels politicians to shed their ideological convictions. Congress can and should exercise its authority to sanction the use of force abroad. It should also compel the White House to be more transparent about unpopular deployments. But an effort to force the president into retreat is dangerous, negligent, and historically disastrous. That seems like a perspective that only the presidency’s uniquely lofty heights can convey. For Congress, the partisan food fight takes precedence.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the former president of Yemen as Ali Abdullah Saleh.

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