It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Yemen has collapsed — again. A country that has split and been pulled together before, has the youngest and fastest growing population in the region, is running low on oil and water, and possesses a “personalist” government rather than stable institutions, was on the top of every expert’s list as the fragile state most likely to fail next.
What is surprising is that U.S. policy ignored all of this and proceeded on the premise that simply drone-bombing al Qaeda terrorists could keep Yemen intact and stable.
Indeed, last fall, when President Barack Obama pointed to U.S. policy in Yemen as an example of a “success” and a model for the plans that would roll back the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), I shivered.
For as September ended, Shi’ite Houthi rebels from the north moved south and took the capital city, Sanaa.
By January, the Islamic State was noticeably increasing its recruitment in Yemen, and that same month the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for organizing the deadly Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
Last week, the Islamic State bombed two Shi’ite mosques in Yemen, killing more than 130 worshippers at prayer. This week, the Houthi forces are closing in on Yemen’s second major city, Aden, on the south coast, and the U.S.-supported President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has reportedly fled the country.
As the United States has closed its embassy and withdrawn its last troops, Yemen has slid into total chaos, with rebels and jihadists on both sides capturing military bases and seizing tanks and heavy weapons.
The situation is so dire that a coalition of Sunni nations, led by Saudi Arabia, has launched massive airstrikes against the Houthis, with a Saudi adviser threatening to bring up to 150,000 ground troops into Yemen to restore the Hadi regime.
Yemen does have value as a lesson — this is what happens when you ignore the basic foundations of social stability. These include legitimate leadership with stable succession plans; a united elite; institutions to bridge regional and ethnic divisions and assure fairness in political and economic access and a functioning economy with capabilities for providing employment and growth.
Rather than working to secure these things, the U.S. administration has succumbed to the illusion that precision bombing or other surgical interventions to remove “dangerous elements” will sustain broader social and political stability.
Anyone could see that the conditions for collapse were progressing in Yemen and that aerial attacks on al Qaeda terrorists would have no effect on them. Those attacks were a sideshow — like firing a lousy band performing on the deck of an ocean liner, while a hull full of holes is taking on water fast.
What we have now is an area with about 24 million people, more than twice the population now under the rule of the Islamic State in eastern Syria and western Iraq, that is virtually ungoverned and up for grabs and is falling into the grips of an all-out civil war between Iran-supported Shi’as and al Qaeda/ISIS-aligned Sunnis.
It is a war that the West loses no matter who wins.
It is now too late to do much of anything except watch and try to either support any moderate elements if they should emerge as capable of holding regional or national power, or contain any dangerous jihadist elements if they should do so. Either task will be difficult, and provide yet another costly distraction to efforts to restore peace in Syria and Iraq.
In other words, what has happened in Yemen, although predictable, is about the worst outcome imaginable for U.S. policy. That America ever deluded itself into thinking airstrikes were enough to deal with the problems of failing states in the Middle East and North Africa — and the crisis of ISIS — is a notion that could only be made more frightening if it keeps on doing it.
Jack A. Goldstone is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.