The Folly of Abandoning Saudi Arabia in Yemen

Trump is right to veto measure that would end American role in Yemen's war

Saudi army artillery fire shells toward Yemen from a post close to the Saudi-Yemeni border / Getty
April 17, 2019

Last year, the Israeli military showed the security cabinet a list of scenarios in the event of a war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization based in Lebanon. The military told Israeli civilian leaders that, if and when war erupts on Israel's northern border, the army would evacuate tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people who live within range of Hezbollah's estimated 130,000 rockets and missiles. That firepower would rain down on Israel, attacking the Jewish state's strategic targets and critical infrastructure. Indeed, in 2016, the Israeli military's Home Front Command estimated that Hezbollah would be able to launch 1,500 rockets and missiles a day against Israel. To preempt Hezbollah's barrage, Jerusalem would need to attack the group in Lebanon immediately, and with overwhelming force. Virtually all analysts agree that a third Lebanon war would be disastrous, and that Hezbollah, an organization obedient to Iran, poses a severe threat to Israel's security.

This is the reality that Saudi Arabia is trying to avoid in Yemen with the Houthi rebels, who Iran hopes to form into another Hezbollah, this time on the Saudis' southern border. If Israel, the United States, and America's Western (and Arab) allies could travel back in time and prevent Hezbollah from becoming so powerful, they would jump at the opportunity. That may not be possible in Lebanon, but it is still possible to prevent the same outcome in Yemen. Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition against the Houthis in the first place to avert what Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has described as "the establishment of an Iranian-supplied 'southern Hezbollah' on the Arabian Peninsula, flanking the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Suez Canal and posing a new missile threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel." Having two Hezbollahs—a southern one on the Red Sea, and a northern one on the Mediterranean—would be a strategic mess for the United States, and for its Middle Eastern allies.

Yet countless commentators and politicians in the United States are demanding an end to American support for the Saudi-led coalition. Some of these critics argue that Riyadh's military campaign is only worsening the horrific humanitarian situation in Yemen. Others want the United States to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Opposition to America's role in the war in Yemen has swelled in recent months, leading both chambers of Congress to pass resolutions that would invoke the War Powers Act to force the United States to end its role in the conflict. Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.) spearheaded the legislative effort in the House, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) did the same in the Senate. Several Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in voting for the measure.

On Tuesday, President Trump vetoed the resolution, calling it a "political document" and saying peace in Yemen requires a "negotiated settlement."

"This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future," Trump said in his veto message. He also noted that there are "no United States military personnel in Yemen commanding, participating in, or accompanying military forces of the Saudi‑led coalition against the Houthis in hostilities in or affecting Yemen."

Trump was right to veto the resolution. As the president mentioned in his statement, American involvement with the coalition is limited to logistical support—which includes identifying nonmilitary and civilian facilities for coalition aircraft to avoid. Tragically, this support has not avoided all civilian casualties, but it certainly has reduced them. Furthermore, the Pentagon ended its most direct military involvement—in-flight refueling of Saudi aircraft—last year, in the aftermath of Khashoggi's murder. So the argument that the United States is supporting a belligerent Saudi war machine is not really accurate. Moreover, recall that Saudi Arabia launched its military campaign during the Obama administration, at a time when Riyadh felt it had to go rogue because the United States was an unreliable ally. The fact is ending American support for the coalition will, if anything, cause the Saudis to be more reckless, not less. Journalists and politicians fail to understand this basic point: allies are more likely to listen to Washington if they feel the United States supports them, not if they feel abandoned and pressured. And the United States has more influence when it is actively involved, not sitting back and watching events unfold from a distance.

The most disturbing part about this congressional effort is the obvious motivation simply to punish Saudi Arabia, even at the expense of American interests. Like it or not, Saudi Arabia is an essential American ally. Riyadh is an important partner in counterterrorism, and a huge purchaser of American arms sales. The Saudis also are a necessary staple of the global oil market, which affects what Americans pay at the pump regardless of how much oil the United States exports. Not to mention that the Houthis (and Iran) would love control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, one of the world's busiest oil highways. The Houthis have threatened to disrupt international shipping in this waterway, with weapons supplied by Iran.

Moreover, few developments would be more catastrophic for the Middle East than the collapse of the House of Saud. As chaotic as the Middle East is, the Saudi government's stability is one of the few threads keeping the region from reaching a deeper circle of hell. Allowing the Houthis to fire missiles at Riyadh and pose a constant threat on Saudi Arabia's southern border risks destabilizing a key pillar of American interests in the Middle East. Khashoggi's murder was heinous, and the administration's moves to end the in-flight refueling and to impose sanctions on Saudi officials were warranted. But it would be the height of folly to blow up the alliance.

Members of Congress should absolutely want to end the humanitarian suffering in Yemen. Indeed, the United States should continue to support the United Nations' efforts to end the conflict. But abandoning Saudi Arabia would only perpetuate the violence. Too often lost in discussions about Yemen is the fact that the Houthis's brutal and incompetent governance has worsened the humanitarian disaster. They have failed to repair sanitation services, worsening Yemen's cholera epidemic, and have confiscated food and medical aid from civilians to support their fighters. The Houthis have also used child soldiers to field more fighters. The Saudis have certainly waged a clumsy and incompetent war, but too many critics are blinded by their hate of Riyadh to see the Houthis for the monsters that they are. And that does not include their anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic ideology, which is all too evident in their slogan: "Death to America, death to Israel, curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam!" Perhaps self-righteous journalists and politicians can find some time to criticize the Houthis, not just the Saudis.

In sum, the United States cannot lose sight of the key strategic objective in Yemen: to prevent the creation of a southern Hezbollah, which would enhance Iran's nefarious influence in the Middle East and only perpetuate violence and suffering. That means continuing American support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, as hard a pill as that may be to swallow.