Time for Diplomacy, Not War, in Yemen

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 civiliansdisplaced 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.