Mattis shouldn’t wait 30 days: He can pull the U.S. out from Yemen now

By Daniel DePetris

There is perhaps no other conflict in the world today that has been as senseless and disastrous to civilians as the civil war engulfing Yemen. The humanitarian situation in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country has been unforgiving to the millions of people who would like nothing more than for the violence to end.  As a direct protagonist in the war, Washington can help end it by separating itself from this tragedy completely - the sooner, the better.

Trump administration officials are finally appearing to grasp just how horrific and indeed pointless Yemen’s war is.  This week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged all combatants in the conflict to stop killing each other and start fully cooperating with U.N.-facilitated peace negotiations.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement the same day calling on the Houthis to cease firing missiles into Saudi Arabia and for the Saudi and UAE-led coalition to stop bombing populated areas is a step in the right direction - albeit one that should have been taken years ago.

Even so, the Trump administration’s words are utterly meaningless without concrete action attached to it.  Calling for a halt to hostilities may make us feel better, but it does nothing whatsoever to incentivize the warring parties to actually heed those demands.  Indeed, right now, U.S. policy in Yemen is the same jumbled batch of contradictions that it’s been from the moment Washington first decided to provide the Saudis and Emiratis unconditional support to their military campaign; at the same time the administration is lobbying for peace talks, it continues to provide the Saudi coalition with the fuel it needs to keep its combat aircraft in the air.  To use one imperfect analogy, Washington’s strategy in Yemen mimics a distressed parent who gives his 5-year old son candy so he stops crying in the supermarket; it may buy you some time, but at the cost of rewarding bad behavior.

The most effective way for the United States to bring the Saudis, Emiratis, Yemeni government forces, and the Houthis into a serious diplomatic process is to remove itself from the war entirely.  As my Defense Priorities colleague Ret. Lt. Col. Daniel Davis observed in the Hill this week, Washington’s “substantial support has succeeded only in preventing the war from ending and perversely prolonging the suffering of the many innocent civilians” who have been left destitute, hungry, and homeless.   

There is no compelling national security interest in Washington picking favorites in an intractable, stalemated Middle Eastern proxy conflict that has no impact on U.S. security.  The only core security interest the U.S. possesses in Yemen is protecting the American people from transnational terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which a group which has attempted to attack the U.S. homeland in the past.  Coincidentally, Yemen’s war—and the Obama and Trump administration’s participation in it—has given AQAP a new lease on life.  The group has capitalized on the conflict by recruiting more foot-soldiers, increasing its bankroll, and presenting itself as the guardians of Yemen’s Sunni population from supposed Iranian imperialism.  The longer the war goes on, the more opportunity there is for AQAP to thrive—including by entrenching itself into the very pro-government militias Riyadh and Abu Dhabi arm and finance.

 We are long past the point in which U.S. involvement in Yemen—involvement that Congress has not expressly authorized—is making the prospects of a political resolution more difficult to envision.  American military and logistical assistance to the Saudi coalition is morally strategically bankrupt.  The U.S. can no longer squander it’s good name on a war in which all of the belligerents are engaging in ruthless conduct.

Mattis and Pompeo don’t have to wait an extra 30 days—they can pull the plug immediately.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on November 2, 2018. Read more HERE.