The Disgraceful Case for Increasing U.S. Support for the War on Yemen




Michael Knights, Ken Pollack, and Barbara Walter make an unpersuasive case that the U.S. should increase its support for the Saudi coalition war on Yemen:

True peace in Yemen will remain elusive unless both sides accept that they have nothing to gain from more fighting. We are not there yet. To get there will require not cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia but threatening to doube down on it unless the Houthis honor their commitments to the UN and are ready to disgorge most of their initial conquests. If Washington is serious about ending the war, it must come to terms with this uncomfortable fact.

The “fact” mentioned here is not a fact at all. It is an unfounded opinion offered in support of a truly reprehensible policy idea. Trying to get the Houthis to “disgorge most of their initial conquests” is what the Saudi coalition has been trying and failing to do for more than four years. Threatening to increase U.S. support to the coalition isn’t going to change this, and actually increasing U.S. military assistance to an indefensible war is an unacceptable option that would only serve to escalate and prolong the conflict.

It is absurd to think that adding fuel to the war on Yemen will bring the war to an end more quickly. The Saudi coalition intervened in a conflict that already existed, but in so doing they escalated and intensified it. Even if the war does not end immediately, it would be a less destructive conflict and it would pose less of a threat to the civilian population once the Saudis and Emiratis are no longer involved. Encouraging these governments to persist in their failed war will continue creating conditions for mass starvation and epidemics of preventable diseases.

The authors suggest that cutting off the Saudi coalition would lead to a total Houthi victory. That is doubtful, and they are relying on this scenario to try to scare their audience into going along with their awful recommendation. None of the warring parties has been able to win outright, and a withdrawal of the Saudi coalition from the war would allow for a political settlement among Yemenis that isn’t possible as long as the Saudis and Emiratis keep trying to impose their proxies on the country. The authors tendentiously claim that Congressional pressure on the Saudi coalition has encouraged the Houthis, but the reality is that U.N.-led peace negotiations have made more progress in the last six months since the Senate first voted to end U.S. involvement than they made in the previous three and a half years. It is regrettable that it took Congress so long to do the right thing, because we have already seen the positive effect that sustained criticism of the coalition can have.

The authors’ assumption that cutting off the Saudi coalition won’t end the war is contradicted by years of evidence that a diplomatic settlement has been impossible so long as the U.S. has been giving them unconditional backing. Congressional opposition to the war has demonstrably been a boon to the cause of peace in Yemen, and Trump’s veto of the antiwar resolution has had the opposite effect. If the U.S. did what the authors wanted, we should expect a surge in violence and a faster deterioration in the humanitarian situation. The authors assert, “The hard truth is that the cease-fire in Hodeidah came about only because of military pressure from the Saudi-led coalition,” but this is absolutely false. The cease-fire happened in spite of the Saudi coalition’s determination to seize the port by force. The only reason that there needed to be a cease-fire in Hodeidah was that the UAE and its proxies launched an offensive in the summer of 2018 with the approval and encouragement of the Trump administration. Attacking Hodeidah used to be something that the U.S. was supposed to be firmly against, but now it is the centerpiece of the authors’ awful proposal.

Indulging and encouraging the coalition’s worst behavior is what put Hodeidah in jeopardy and threatened the people in its hinterland with starvation in the first place. If the Saudi coalition were pressured to end their involvement in the war, the threat to Hodeidah’s port and the danger to the civilian population would be significantly reduced. The authors’ call to back the Saudi coalition in an attempt to seize Hodeidah is disgraceful, since it was U.S. support for the previous offensive that has significantly worsened conditions in the country. Attacking the port would interrupt the delivery of commercial goods and aid. Depending on how much damage was done to the port during the assault, it could render it inoperable for months. Even a brief interruption would push the millions of people on the verge of starvation over the edge into the worst famine in decades, and a damaged or closed port would be a death sentence for even more Yemenis. To their discredit, the authors don’t acknowledge any of this as the obvious consequence of the course of action they propose. They are explicitly calling for an assault that aid agencies have repeatedly said would drive Yemen’s civilian population into the abyss, and they have the gall to claim that this will improve conditions.

The Saudis and Emiratis depend on U.S. and U.K. military assistance and technical support to keep their war going. Cutting that support would go a long way to removing some of the worst belligerents from the conflict, and that would clearly be an improvement over the status quo. That does not guarantee an end to all fighting in Yemen, but it would create space for political compromise and it would deprive the Houthis of one of their main justifications for continuing to fight. Pulling the plug on the Saudi coalition’s war effort would deprive the Houthis of the foreign threat that they have been able to exploit to distract from their own abuses. The authors’ proposal would be a political gift to the Houthis, since it would allow them to continue focusing popular discontent on the coalition and the U.S.

Ending U.S. support for the war is what’s best for Yemen, but it is also clearly in the American interest as well. U.S. involvement in the war is a stain on our foreign policy record. Aiding and abetting the coalition in their many crimes makes our government complicit in horrific attacks that have claimed thousands of lives and contributed to the impoverishment and starvation of millions. The U.S. has not advanced any of its security interests through its involvement in this war, and in fact the coalition’s war effort has undermined the effort to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On top of all that, U.S. involvement in the war is unauthorized and illegal, as Congress has made clear, and increasing U.S. involvement in defiance of majorities in the House and the Senate would show even more contempt for the Constitution than Trump has already shown.

Like every other argument in favor of U.S. support for the war on Yemen, this proposal for increasing that support is based on shoddy assumptions, faulty reasoning, and a number of false claims. It is a lousy argument in support of a despicable policy, and the authors should be embarrassed to have written it. On no account should members of Congress take their proposal seriously, but should instead intensify their efforts to rein in the Saudi coalition and challenge the Trump administration’s ongoing support for an indefensible war.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors.

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