Two months after Saudi Arabian airstrikes killed more than 140 people at a funeral in Yemen — the latest in a long string of attacks on civilian targets that have led to accusations of war crimes in the tiny Gulf nation — the Obama administration has decided to curtail American support for Riyadh’s bloody intervention in the Yemeni civil war.
“We continue to have concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged, most especially the air campaign,” an unnamed administration official told ABC News. “Consequently, we have decided to not move forward with final approval on some sales of munitions. This reflects our continued, strong concerns with the flaws in the [Saudi-led] Coalition’s targeting practices and overall prosecution of the air campaign in Yemen.”
In a war (and galling humanitarian crisis) so persistently downplayed by Washington and ignored by much of our media, this shift is welcome news. Saudi intervention — and specifically the blockade the United States has helped enforce — is destroying Yemeni civilians, producing massive internal displacement and starvation, and leaving millions without access to basic health care or even clean water. The turmoil the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention has fostered has also enabled the growth of terrorist groups in Yemen, including the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the latter of which has surged into the war-torn country’s power vacuum to create a ministate along the Gulf coast.
The decision to revise American support for Riyadh’s intervention is long overdue, but it’s a good start. The bulk of American assistance will remain intact, however, which is a strategic mistake.
As much as the White House insists its backing is not a “blank check” to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis might well be forgiven for coming to the opposite conclusion. In fact, The Washington Post notes, while drawing down some support measures, the Obama administration will simultaneously “continue or even increase other kinds of intelligence sharing” with Saudi forces, continuing to train them for air campaigns and giving unspecified “expanded support for the defense of the Saudi border.”
Thus the canceled arms sale is more a slap on the wrist than a fundamental rethink of whether our permanent Saudi alliance in general or assisting Saudi attacks in Yemen in particular is in the United States’ best interest. That rethink is much-needed and much overdue.
“Saudi Arabia has been a longtime ally of the United States, a friend in a region where Iran and Iraq have been hostile,” writes conservative columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week. “But the House of Saud’s war in Yemen is a conflict that is angering several of our other allies” — like Australia, which has called for cease-fire in Yemen — and damaging U.S. credibility and moral standing in condemning other Mideast atrocities such as the suffering in Aleppo, Syria.
Though cast by Washington as an important friendship to maintain for American security, our relationship with Saudi Arabia is not as vital as it once was — and the negative consequences of turning a blind eye are increasingly severe. U.S. involvement in Yemen is little more than an effort to police sectarian infighting and part of a broader effort to remake an entire region from afar. It’s an impossible and costly task that in practice makes us less safe while devastating Yemen itself.
“This is not a punitive measure; it’s a corrective measure,” a senior U.S. official told the Post of the canceled arms sale. “We have to careful not to cut back on things that serve our interests in the process of trying to cut back on things that don’t serve our interest.”
That assessment is exactly right. The problem is our foreign policy mandarins have lost sight of exactly what America’s vital national interests are.
Washington elites — the architects of the last 15 years of regime-change campaigns, nation-building projects, and other misadventures — have cost America and our military greatly, and the result has been increased death and destruction and a flood of refugees.
It’s about time we “cut back on things that don’t serve our interests” — let’s start by ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s reckless and unlawful actions in Yemen’s civil war.
Bonnie Kristian, a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, is a fellow at Defense Priorities.