On Wednesday June 13 the Saudi-led military coalition launched an assault to seize Hodeidah, the site of Yemen’s main port. The port, currently held by Houthi fighters, is the primary channel through which humanitarian aid reaches millions of at-risk Yemenis, who have suffered from four long years of civil war.
The war has already taken a huge toll on Yemen. If the vital humanitarian aid delivered through Hodeidah is disrupted by a coalition assault, many more civilians could die.
The coalition had sought direct military assistance from the United States, which has provided weapons, intelligence, and logistical support throughout the war. The Trump administration declined, however, and encouraged the coalition to give the United Nations time for diplomacy. This remains the right approach. As tragic as the situation in Yemen is today, continued American support for military intervention is the wrong answer. Not only does the United States lack a compelling national security interest in Yemen, but by supporting the Saudi-led coalition the United States has contributed materially to the one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 21st century. Further military support won’t improve American security, but it risks making things worse for Yemen.
American support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen has been spurred by two ultimately misguided arguments. First, Yemen is home to an Al Qaeda affiliate—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—most famous for sponsoring the attacks on the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and two failed attempts on U.S. soil by lone attackers in 2009 and 2010. But although the group certainly maintains an anti-Western ideology, like most terrorist groups its overwhelming focus is fighting for control of its own neighborhood. In addition, like most terrorist groups it is relatively small and has little ability to project power across long distances. It does not represent a big enough threat to justify a full-scale invasion of Yemen.
The second argument for supporting the war in Yemen is that both the Saudis and the United States view the Houthi rebels as Iranian proxies. Helping Saudi Arabia “manage” Yemen is thus seen as part of the broader campaign to limit Iranian influence. Yet it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran, that dominates the Middle East when it comes to defense spending. According to Jane’s Defense Budgets Report Saudi Arabia will spend roughly $50 billion in 2018 on defense compared to Iran’s $16 billion. Simply put, as a major player in the Middle East Iran may enjoy the ability to frustrate Saudi and American interests in Yemen and elsewhere, but it is no threat to become a regional hegemon anytime soon.
The reality is that neither the threat of terrorism nor the threat from Iran are significant enough to warrant the Saudi coalition’s intervention in the first place, much less the United States continuing to support the coalition.
Nor is there any assurance that a coalition military “victory” would put an end to conflict in Yemen. Conventional military campaigns are good for killing people, destroying infrastructure, and taking territory, but the United States has learned through painful experience in Iraq and Afghanistan that even America’s awesome firepower cannot create peace. Even worse, the destruction and chaos caused by military conflicts are often the crucible of new terrorist groups, as the emergence of the Islamic State after the invasion of Iraq showed. In short, neither the underlying causes of the civil war nor the sources of terrorism would be eradicated if the Saudis were to take control of Yemen tomorrow.
Last, but most fundamentally, American support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen puts the United States on the wrong side of international law and moral duty. Saudi airstrikes, carried out with American targeting and refueling support, have killed as many as 5,000 civilians, displaced millions, put millions more at risk of starvation, and led to history’s worst cholera outbreak, which itself has already caused thousands of deaths. The coalition air campaign’s lack of targeting discrimination led the United Nations to send war crimes investigators to Yemen. As long as the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the United States must bear some responsibility for any war crimes being committed by the coalition and it must share in the blame for the tragic consequences.
It is past time for the United States to stop supporting the war in Yemen. The Trump administration should tell the Saudi-led coalition not to launch an assault on Hodaideh. Further, the United States should make it clear to the Saudis that the coalition needs a plan to wind down the war. The U.S. and coalition emphasis moving forward should be on supporting the United Nations-led negotiations to convince the Houthis to cede control of the port to the United Nations and from there to brokering an end to the conflict. Given the tragic consequences of the war to date, diplomacy is the best next step.
Discussions of military intervention often focus on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is entirely understandable: the war in Iraq was a catastrophic foreign policy choice that is still reshaping the political landscape of the Middle East today.
Yet the Iraq war is unusual in many ways. There was no existing civil war or humanitarian crisis, a factor which has driven many of America’s other post-Cold War interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo and Libya. The United States also undertook the invasion of Iraq largely alone and against the wishes of other countries; unable to gain support from the majority of its NATO allies, the Iraq invasion relied on the so-called "coalition of the willing," a small ad-hoc group of countries persuaded by the Bush administration.
In my newly published article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, I attempt to move past the Iraq War case to examine the broader range of U.S. military interventions. I look at the two recent civil war cases where intervention was possible – Syria and Libya during the Arab spring – to explore the role played by allies and security partners in decision-making about whether to intervene.
Logic suggests that smaller states do have a strong incentive to seek the help of a major power ally like the United States for their interventions. As I note in the article:
“Put more simply, small states can benefit substantially from the intervention of a major power ally, particularly if they lack the capacity or manpower to carry out an effective campaign alone. African Union peacekeeping forces, for example, typically lack military assets required for their missions; training, logistical support and equipment are often provided by the United States to overcome this deficiency (Williams 2011)…. pressure from allies to join an intervention is likely to be highest when A is larger (i.e., relatively more capable in military terms) than B, and has the potential to tip the balance toward B’s intervention objectives.”
This logic bears a strong resemblence to the concept of entrapment, which has been studied before, but primarily in the context of alliances and interstate wars. In contrast, this article explores how smaller states can seek to entangle bigger ones in their civil war interventions, using techniques like lobbying, media manipulation and even altering the conflict’s strategic balance. In Libya, for example, British and French policymakers successfully swayed the skeptical Obama administration towards intervention through the use of an aggressive media and diplomatic campaign. In contrast, in Syria, Saudi and Turkish officials used many of the same tactics, but were largely unsuccessful in obtaining a U.S. intervention in that conflict.
“In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, British ambassador to the United States Christopher Meyer bemoaned the use of alliance ties to justify the British choice to join the coalition, noting that “there comes a point where if you hug too close, it becomes an end in itself” (quoted in Davidson 2011, p. 135). As Meyer – and many scholars – have noted, alliances can help to entrap states in unwanted conflicts.”
As this article illustrates, it’s important to understand where the pressures for U.S. intervention come from. Sometimes – as in the case of Iraq – that pressure is largely home-grown. Yet in other cases, pressure can come from allies and security partners, as those states which have a stronger interest in the conflict try to convince the United States to join them in intervening. Before joining an intervention, therefore, U.S. policymakers would be well-served to consider whether an intervention is in American interests, or merely in the interests of other states.
You can check out the whole paper, with more examples and detail, here.
During the post-World War II period, opposition to U.S. militarism and involvement in dubious military conflicts has usually been stronger on the political left than the right. Left-wing, anti-war sentiment reached its peak during the Vietnam War, when groups opposed to that conflict could sometimes mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators. Opposition to subsequent U.S. military crusades was less robust, but even as late as the Iraq War, there were sizable anti-war demonstrations in the streets.
There have been warning signs for some time, though, that opposition to unnecessary armed conflicts has lost its appeal to much of the political left. For one thing, there was always a partisan bias to anti-war movements. Even during the heyday of resistance to the Vietnam War, the criticism became more intense after Republican Richard Nixon took over the White House than it had been when Democrat Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office. The bias was even more apparent in later decades. There was far more criticism of Republican George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War than there was of Democrat Bill Clinton’s wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Indeed, a distressing number of prominent liberals found reasons to praise Clinton’s military crusades in the Balkans.
The partisan factor has grown even more intense in the twenty-first century. Left-wing groups mounted a fairly serious effort to thwart Republican George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But when Democrat Barack Obama greatly escalated U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and led a NATO assault to remove Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from power, the reaction was very different. Except for a few hard-left organizations, such as Code Pink, the sounds coming from the usual supposed anti-war liberal quarters were those of crickets. Likewise, there has been little push-back to Obama’s gradual return of the U.S. military presence in Iraq or the entanglement of the U.S. military in Syria.
Some on the left hoped that the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination signaled a revitalization of opposition to the warfare state among progressives. That did not prove to be the case. Foreign policy in general, and opposition to Washington’s wars in particular, was a secondary and anemic theme in his campaign against Hillary Clinton.
And Sanders may now have sounded the death knell for the liberal anti-war movement. Just days after Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 presidential election, Sanders published a high-profile article in the New York Times outlining the policy agenda for progressives going forward. The piece contained the usual laundry list of identity politics and spending proposals that left-wing types have been pushing for decades. What was striking, though, is that the article contained not a single word—not a single word—about foreign policy. The United States is mired in the longest war in its history in Afghanistan, it has returned to the scene of its last major interventionist disaster in Iraq, and it is already entangled to a dangerous degree in Syria. The president-elect has indicated that he may tear up the agreement with Iran, wants to adopt a confrontational trade policy toward China, and wants to pour even more money into the Pentagon.
Yet the most visible and prominent political figure on the left apparently deems all of this unworthy of a comment in America’s most prestigious newspaper. That omission suggests that Sanders may believe his followers do not consider foreign policy very important. That would be worrisome. The other possibility is even worse: that he believes they have accommodated themselves to the warfare state—that as long as they can get the funding for their pet domestic programs, they are willing to back even more generous funding of the Pentagon and other elements of the national security apparatus. Such an assumption would also suggest that they would remain largely mute as Washington embarks on future military crusades.
If the latter scenario proves true, we are witnessing the demise of anti-war liberals. It would then be up to libertarians and limited government conservatives to redouble their efforts to wage campaigns for peace, despite knowing that we may have few, if any allies, on our left flank.
A group of State Department officials recently sent a confidential cable chiding the administration for not adding another war to America’s very full agenda. The 51 diplomats called for “targeted military strikes” against the Syrian government and greater support for “moderate” forces fighting the regime.
One of the architects of current policy, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, also has turned against the administration’s more disengaged approach. She urged creation of a no fly zone, an act of war, as well as greater support for insurgents.
The conflict is horrid, of course, but no one has explained how U.S. entry into Syria’s multi-sided civil war would actually end the murder and mayhem. Nor has anyone shown how America making another Middle Eastern conflict its own would serve Americans’ interests.
Despite the repeated failure of social engineering at home, Washington officials believe that they can transcend culture, history, religion, ethnicity, geography, and more and forcibly transform other peoples and nations. Those who resist America’s tender mercies via bombs, drones, infantry, and special operation forces are assumed to deserve their fate.
This interventionist impulse is particularly inappropriate for a devilishly complex conflict like Syria. Unfortunately, Washington’s early insistence on Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow thwarted hope for a negotiated settlement.
The claim that the U.S. could have provided just the right amount of assistance to just the right groups to yield just the right outcome is a fantasy, belied by America’s failure get much of anything in the Middle East right. Even when Washington seemingly enjoyed full control in Iraq the U.S. did just about everything wrong, triggering the sectarian conflict which spawned the Islamic State.
Military action would be even more dangerous today given Russia’s involvement. Syria matters much more to Russia, which has a long relationship with Damascus, enjoys access to the Mediterranean from a Syrian base, and has only limited influence elsewhere in the region.
No fly proponents blithely assume that Moscow would yield to U.S. dictates, but America would not surrender if the situation was reversed. A no fly zone would not bring peace to Syria but would risk a military incident with a nuclear-armed power.
The State Department dissenters argued for limited strikes on Syria. What if such attacks failed? What if Damascus deployed Russian anti-aircraft systems? What if Moscow escalated against U.S.-supported insurgents? Would Washington concede or double down?
In fact, no one has a realistic scheme to put the Syrian Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Ousting Assad would effectively clear the way for the Islamic State and other radical factions.
So far supporting so-called moderate insurgents has done little more than end up indirectly supplying ISIL and al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, with recruits and weapons. Turkey is at war with the same Kurdish fighters America supports.
While horror is the appropriate reaction to Syria’s civil war, the U.S. has no solution to offer. The U.S. should adopt a policy of first do no harm.
As I argue in National Interest: “Stay out of the conflict. Don’t add to the tragedy. Accept refugees fleeing for their lives. Provide humanitarian aid to those within reach. That would be an agenda of which Americans could be proud.”
One of Michael Mandelbaum’s tasks in his highly provocative new book, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, is to locate the principal inspiration for American foreign policy debacles over the last quarter century.
He finds it in the American foreign policy establishment that has surrounded him over the last decades during which he has been the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
He will be talking about his work at a book forum to be held at noon on April 20 several blocks down Massachusetts Avenue at the Cato Institute. Although Cato has been perhaps the only think tank in the city that has managed to stay out of the foreign policy establishment, members of that establishment might do well to attend (and don’t forget: there is a free lunch afterward). Mandelbaum’s presentation will be followed by comments on the book by Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Brad Stapleton of Cato.
Assessing the history of American military and foreign policy between 1993 and 2014, Mandelbaum identifies a pattern of nearly perfect failure: policies that proved to be counterproductive and military interventions that failed to achieve their presumed purpose which was to create viable, responsive, and effective governments.
Although, as he points out, the American public as a whole was able to contain its enthusiasm for transforming other countries, the establishment has rarely suggested that regrettable happenings overseas were not the business of the United States or that America was simply not capable of setting things right. That is, it was the establishment, not the general public, that principally applauded such extravagant, self-infatuated (and incorrect) pronouncements as the one Mandelbaum quotes from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “American have always risen to the challenges we have faced. It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.”
It certainly seems, however, that there have been two levels of failure. Those of the 20th century generally failed to correct bad situations that had been created by the locals—as in Somalia. Those of the 21st mostly made bad conditions much worse—as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan. In the last of these, 74% of Pakistanis have come to view the United States as an enemy even as their government cashes the aid checks of $2 or $3 billion it receives annually from that enemy. As negative foreign policy achievements go, that is quite spectacular. There is thus a difference between failure and abject failure.
In reflecting on the phenomenon, Mandelbaum suggests that one reason the United States serially ventured into disastrous interventions “was that it could.” It had the resources and “no other country or coalition of countries was in a position to stop it.”
In the wake of the Vietnam War, strategist Bernard Brodie wistfully reflected, “One way of keeping people out of trouble is to deny them the means for getting into it.” A third of a century later, that sage admonition continues to resonate.
You can register for the book forum here.
Yet another U.S. nation-building venture appears to be on the brink of failure. Earlier this month, Taliban forces overran much of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. Although government troops eventually retook most of the city, they were able to do so only with substantial assistance from the U.S. combat units still in the country.
General John Campbell, the U.S. commander, then urged President Obama to delay the planned withdrawal of the remaining 9,800 American troops and to keep a permanent garrison that is much larger than the president’s original plan for 1,000 military personnel, mostly operating out of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The president has now unwisely complied with that request, deciding to keep at least 5,500 troops past the original 2016 deadline. As I argue in a new article in the National Interest Online, Afghanistan threatens to become an endless nation-building quagmire for Washington.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has asked the question that occurs to many Americans: why are we still in Afghanistan more than 14 years after the initial invasion in response to the Taliban regime’s decision to shelter al Qaeda? There is almost no al Qaeda presence in that country any longer, and U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden more than four years ago. Yet Washington continues to cite an alleged need to prop-up the Kabul government against the Taliban. Senator Paul is absolutely correct that it is well past time for anti-Taliban Afghans to step up and defend their own country without relying on the United States.
Unfortunately, what is happening in Afghanistan is typical of the results of U.S. foreign policy initiatives over the past half century. U.S. administrations seem to have a knack for picking corrupt, unmotivated foreign clients who crumble in the face of determined domestic adversaries. The Obama administration’s fiasco of trying to train a cadre of “moderate” Syrian rebels to counter both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS is only the most recent example. Despite spending more than $400 million, the scheme produced only a handful of trainees—many of whom defected to ISIS or at least turned over many of their weapons to the terrorist group or to al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. That embarrassing training debacle, now wisely abandoned by the Obama administration, may well set a new record for expensive, ineffectual government boondoggles.
The events in Syria, though, were similar to the earlier fiasco next door in Iraq. The United States spent a decade training and equipping a new Iraqi army at great expense (more than $25 billion) to American taxpayers. Yet when ISIS launched its offensive last year to capture Mosul and other cities, Iraqi troops seemed intent on setting speed records to flee their positions and let the insurgents take over with barely a struggle. ISIS captured vast quantities of sophisticated military hardware that Baghdad’s troops abandoned in their haste.
That episode was reminiscent of the pathetic performance of the U.S.-backed ARVN—South Vietnam’s so-called army--in early 1975. Although the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had waged a bloody war against both South Vietnamese communist insurgents and North Vietnam for more than a decade, which cost over 58,000 American lives, the results were dismal. President Nixon’s Vietnamization program—training and equipping the ARVN and gradually transferring responsibility for the war effort to the South Vietnamese government--was a total failure. When North Vietnam launched a major offensive in early 1975, the collapse of the ARVN was shockingly rapid and complete. Indeed, it occurred so fast that the U.S. embassy in Saigon was barely able to evacuate its diplomatic personnel before North Vietnamese troops captured the city.
These and other incidents confirm that U.S. leaders habitually choose foreign clients that are utterly inept. They are characterized by thin domestic support, poor organization, and terrible morale. Their domestic adversaries always seem to be better organized, more competent, and far more dedicated. Given the extent of the failures in so many different arenas, Washington should realize that lavishing funds on preferred clients cannot make them credible political and military players in their countries. And continuing to backstop such inept clients with U.S. troops merely wastes American lives. Unfortunately, it appears that we are on the verge of being taught that lesson yet again—this time in Afghanistan.
In a recent commentary published on the World Post, Niall Ferguson criticizes President Obama for “Playing Patience While Syria Burns.” In his view, the Obama administration has chosen to kick the can down the road because the president “naturally prefers the path of least resistance.”
The problem with Ferguson’s argument (and many similar articles) is that it criticizes Obama for dithering over Syria without elaborating a viable alternative policy. Ferguson quite rightly points out that the choice is not simply between doing nothing and plunging into another Iraq—“there are many degrees of intervention in a war like the one raging in Syria.” Yet he never explains what type of intervention would actually help resolve the conflict in Syria. He seems to imply that Obama should have armed the Syrian rebels,but he fails to explain how that would end the conflict. Could the rebels have toppled Assad if they had American arms (and maybe air support like in Libya)? Is such an approach still viable following Russia’s intervention? And even if the rebels were to succeed in toppling Assad, then what? There are more than forty different rebel groups operating in Syria. Are they all going to cooperate in forming a national unity government? Or will they simply start carving out their own little fiefdoms, and perhaps begin fighting each other? These are the types of questions that need to be addressed before the United States intervenes—and they’re surely questions that the Obama administration has been wrestling with.
Ultimately, Ferguson’s article demonstrates that it's a lot easier to criticize President Obama for doing too little than to devise a positive strategy that would accomplish much in Syria. The fact that the situation in Syria is currently so abysmal does not necessarily mean that a more proactive approach would improve the situation. U.S. intervention could easily make a bad situation worse. Since the Syrian conflict is such a complex problem, as Ferguson acknowledges, we should remain wary of calls for the United States to do more until the proponents of greater intervention are able to explicate a clear, detailed strategy—a strategy that explains specific actions the United States can implement, and, more importantly, how those actions will actually facilitate a resolution of the conflict.