By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis
In a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis emphatically stated that within 30 days he wanted “to see everybody (in the Yemen war) around a peace table based on a ceasefire” so they can “end this war.” Mattis missed the opportunity, however, to call for an immediate end of U.S. support for the war.
It’s worth asking how and why the U.S. got involved in the Yemen civil war in the first place. The trouble began on March 25, 2015 when the Obama administration issued a press release announcing public support for the Saudi war against Yemen.
The statement read: “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support” for the Saudi’s war. Washington’s support, the statement continued, was based on issues “related to their security and our shared interests.” The U.S. Armed Forces should only be used to defend the United States or our allies from attack, and not merely for issues “related” to the security of another nation.
Even minimal analysis of the strategic situation plainly reveals that whatever issues may exist between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there is no threat to American national security as a result of the civil war brewing there. Plainly stated, there is no rationale justifying our continued support in that brutal war and it should end immediately.
In fact, had Obama not committed the United States to the war in 2015, it is entirely possible the sides may have come to a negotiated settlement long ago. Our substantial support has succeeded only in preventing the war from ending and perversely prolonging the suffering of the many innocent civilians.
As was so strongly exposed with the revelation that the most senior Saudi state officials brutally murdered Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi, our values and those of Saudi Arabia do not align. Though it should have happened long ago, we should take this opportunity to reset our relations with Riyad—recognizing they are an autocratic regime— and let our national interests govern the relationship moving forward.
Sometimes American policymakers have to face a conundrum in balancing our interests and values in a complex world. In this case, there is no tension, as it is neither in America’s interests nor representative of our values to support Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen.
At a September UN Security Council meeting, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told council members, “We may now be approaching a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to prevent massive loss of life as a result of widespread famine across the country.”
Last week, Lowcock updated the Security Council explaining that the situation had gotten demonstrably worse in just the past month: “There is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing Yemen: much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives.”
More fighting isn’t going to reverse this situation. The problems in Yemen are political in nature and thus cannot be solved with military means. Already, the Saudi armed forces have proven to be incapable of militarily defeating their opponents. More fighting will merely increase the suffering.
If Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are serious about forcing a ceasefire in 30 days, the most effective tool at their disposal is to withdraw our military support. Put simply, it is not in America’s interest to pick sides in every violent conflict in the Middle East. We must be laser-focused with regards to our interests abroad—eliminating direct terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland.
When it makes sense, we can support humanitarian efforts and add diplomatic weight to help competing sides reach agreement. But we simply cannot continue trying to force a military solution to every political problem. It hasn’t worked in two decades and it will not work now.
America does not need to try and be the referee of the Middle East and force sides to the negotiating table in the Yemen civil war. The best thing we can do for peace is to immediately withdraw our military support and encourage the sides to find a political solution.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on November 1, 2018. Read more HERE.