This essay is part of a New York Times opinion-page debate on whether “Yemen is America’s fight.”
Six years before the Arab Spring, a group of rural highlanders in Yemen called the Houthis rose up against an autocratic government and its foreign patrons to demand their rights.
Fast forward to 2015, and the Houthis are still fighting to redress their domestic grievances, but within a much-altered region where geopolitical rivalries between two global axes have come to a dangerous boil.
While the American instinct may be to back up its Gulf allies, Washington would be a lot wiser to rein in Saudi involvement in this civil war. Last week, the Saudi-led coalition of mainly Gulf Cooperation Council states and other monarchies launched airstrikes against Yemen in an aggressive bid to maintain their primacy in this fast-changing Middle East. But they cannot expect to achieve this after having sustained heavy political losses from interventions in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.
Historically, Yemen has been military quicksand for invaders and interventionists, both. The country, after the course of six recent wars, is rife with weaponry and battle-hardened constituents. So, why would the United States slip deeper into yet another Middle Eastern quagmire, in Yemen, especially after having already failed at containing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula there?
Washington is already propping up the war effort from behind, providing military assistance and reconnaissance drones, which pick off Yemeni targets for Saudi bombers. In anticipation of this scenario, Congress approved – in the first year of the Arab Spring no less — $67 billion in weapons sales to the Saudis, including aircraft, helicopters, missiles, missile launchers, bombs and around $640 million in cluster munitions, most of which are now coming into play in this Yemeni theater.
So far the United States is operating quietly, offering neither “objectives” nor “plans” for its Yemeni adventure. But Americans need to be wary: Just yesterday, President Obama was hailing Yemen as a “counterterrorism” success. Today all bets are off, and we know through this gaff that Washington has read Yemen wrong all along.
In striving to preserve its hegemony in the region, the United States has consistently backed the wrong horse – courting wealthy and powerful autocrats and monarchs, and isolating itself from popular sentiment in the region. Nuclear talks with Iran promised a new direction: It suggested that Washington was looking to expand its relationships with regional actors capable of stemming the jihadi tide sweeping the Mideast.
In Yemen today, the United States would be wise to pursue this new path, and break with its old trajectory of militarization and confrontation alongside unsavory allies. Because this Saudi thrust for primacy is the same one that gave birth to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, AQAP in Yemen and the Islamic State everywhere.
Picking a fight with the Houthis – who have helped contain AQAP on the ground for years – instead of sitting across a table to negotiate with them, will free up extremists to run amok in the Persian Gulf.
While the American instinct may be to back up its allies, Washington would be a lot wiser to rein in the Saudis, push for diplomatic solutions, and focus on the other, infinitely more threatening conflicts at hand in the region. At the rate the Saudis are escalating, any full-on war in Yemen will cripple the entire Arabian Peninsula, and that would be a disaster for all key U.S. policy interests in the region.
This article was first published on the New York Times’ Room for Debate on April 1, 2015. Follow the author on Twitter and Facebook.