By Daniel DePetris
The United States has, to put it mildly, frequently miscalculated in the Middle East over the past decade and a half: invading Iraq based on intelligence that was grossly inaccurate; adopting a regime change mission in Libya before planning for what would happen after Muammar al-Qaddafi; stretching the legal limits of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) devaluing it of any meaning whatsoever, the list goes on.
Yet Washington is very close to making another costly mistake in the Arab world—this time in Yemen.
As the poorest nation in the region, its two-year long civil war has practically leveled whatever meager public infrastructure that tens of millions of people in that place were lucky to have. This isn’t hyperbole, nor is it an exaggeration.
Around 80 to 90 percent of Yemen’s food and a vast amount of its medical supplies and fuel are imported, which means any military operation which results in even minor damage to the country’s seaports or airports will force a substantial percentage of the population to scramble to survive. Unfortunately, this is precisely what Saudi Arabia, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, is preparing to do.
As the Washington Post reported this week, "Saudi fighter jets dropped leaflets over Houthi-controlled Hodeida in recent days warning its hundreds of thousands of residents of an impending offensive” on the Red Sea port. And to make the situation worse, the Trump administration has been internally deliberating about how much assistance the U.S. can provide to the Saudis in order to meet their objective of capturing Hodeida militarily.
Americans have grown used to the U.S. military jumping into conflicts around the world that don’t have very much at all to do with the United States—and the fact that they reject these types of missions doesn’t register with very many politicians in Washington.
In this specific case, however, the extra aid the Trump administration might authorize would result in very little strategic returns for U.S. national security. In fact, even associating the U.S. with an impending military offensive on one of Yemen’s largest ports—with all of the damage, humanitarian calamity, and civilian casualties that would entail—would be counterproductive to the diplomatic solution policymakers in Washington claim to want.
Yemen is already in a state of turmoil. At least 17 million Yemenis need some form of food assistance from the donor community on a day-to-day basis, 10.2 million of whom are considered in a crisis situation. While the Saudi naval blockade of Yemen’s ports isn’t having much of a military impact, it is having a detrimental effect on Yemen’s children—one of whom dies every 10 minutes due to illnesses that could easily be treated if medicine were available.
The United States has nothing to gain from this conflict, but it has everything to lose if it agrees to cooperate with Riyadh during this impending assault.
Sen. Todd Young (R- IN) was absolutely right when he wrote a letter to the Saudi Embassy warning that a military operation on one of Yemen’s largest ports would likely destroy the trading post. Why the Washington elites believe aiding and abetting that kind of operation—one that would slow distribution and risk a famine in multiple Yemeni provinces within one to two months—is almost unfathomable.
Humanitarianism and moralism aside, there are strategic reasons why the United States should stay clear from this conflict.
After 16 years in the region, there is no doubt attempting to pick and choose the winners and losers of proxy conflicts and sectarian wars inevitably leads to negative consequences.
The sectarianism that has roiled Iraq for the better part of a decade— the same sectarianism that drove at least some Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State— exploded after Washington meddled in Iraq’s internal affairs. The tribal infighting and militia warfare that has enveloped Libya over the past five years has exploded because of NATO’s regime change mission against Qaddafi—an operation that wouldn’t have been possible were in not for the United States.
In these two cases and others, our foreign policy establishment misunderstood the conditions on the ground, exhibited extreme hubris, and miscalculated, causing painful second and third order consequences which rage on to this day.. These failed policies have sent tremors across the region detrimental to the U.S. national security interest.
Last but certainly not least, any additional U.S. military assistance to the Saudis would be on the wrong side of the very clear lines that the U.S. Constitution draws on matters of war and peace. As Reps. Justin Amash, Mark Pocan, and 14 of their colleagues have written in a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis, “U.S. military participation in Yemen’s civil war…has never been authorized by Congress.”
While many would argue the U.S. refueling of Saudi warplanes and the sale of munitions to the coalition doesn’t constitute direct involvement in a war, the fact that Riyadh would have to scale down its military campaign without that capability renders that argument moot. Yemen is the very definition of a war zone, and Congress has had very little debate over America’s role in Yemen’s civil war. That’s not what the framer’s of our Constitution envisioned.
The U.S. Congress isn’t a peanut gallery to ignore—it is a co-equal branch of government which the White House must consult before the U.S. military is ordered to do anything more.
The Pentagon still has time to pull back and reassess whether sustaining a serious negotiation process is served by adding more bombs and sorties to the mix. If there is any country in which President Trump’s “America First” policy is applicable, it's Yemen.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on May 16, 2017. Read more HERE.