Make No Mistake — the United States Is at War in Yemen
The White House just doesn’t want to admit it.
By Micah Zenko
The Obama administration revealed that the United States was participating in yet another Middle East military intervention via a press release from the spokesperson of the National Security Council (NSC). This time, it’s Yemen. Late Wednesday evening, March 25, the White House posted a statement declaring: “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.”
There was no prime-time address by the president or secretary of defense — the only two people in the national command authority who can lawfully direct the U.S. military to engage in hostilities. There was no statement from the Department of Defense, the federal agency responsible for those armed forces providing the support to the GCC, or comment from U.S. Central Command, the combatant command whose geographic area of responsibility includes the GCC members and Yemen itself. Rather, the NSC spokesperson simply let us know.
U.S. officials subsequently emphasized that aiding partner countries in their intervention into Yemen is simply “providing enabling support,” as Brig. Gen. Michael Fantini, Middle East principal director of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, told a House hearing last week. And the NSC made it clear that “U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen.”
Yet, make no mistake, the United States is a combatant in this intervention.
The United States is providing targeting intelligence, as the Wall Street Journal reported: “American military planners are using live intelligence feeds from surveillance flights over Yemen to help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb, U.S. officials said.” These video feeds are being provided via U.S. drones, because American manned aircraft are reportedly not presently flying over Yemeni airspace. (One needs to ask: Did U.S.-supplied video feeds help to direct the airstrikes that have caused civilian casualties?) Either way, the aid is clearly above and beyond “logistics” and “intelligence”: The Saudi Defense Ministry announced a U.S. search-and-rescue mission by a HH-60 helicopter flying from Djibouti of two Saudi pilots who ejected from their F-15SA over the Gulf of Aden. Oh, and the United States is also reportedly providing aerial refueling for Saudi fighter aircraft.
This has become a routine pattern for a president who declared in his 2013 inaugural address, “a decade of war is now ending.” The Obama administration has initiated (in Libya and Syria/Iraq) and extended (in Afghanistan) military operations with virtually no public debate or formal role for Congress — a situation that the American people and their elected representatives have tacitly accepted in repeated interventions and in the war on terrorism more generally.
But even though Code Pink isn’t marching on the Mall against the “enabling” of the Yemen campaign, it’s probably still worth trying to understand and evaluate the logic and objectives of the U.S. military support for the Saudi-led intervention.
A military operation that lacks clear courses of action, coherent objectives, or an intended end state is nothing more than the random, purposeless application of force against some enemy.
Like all military interventions, there have been many — at times contradictory — justifications offered by U.S. officials. The NSC claimed the purpose was to “defend Saudi Arabia’s border and to protect Yemen’s legitimate government.” The State Department suggested that the intent was “to promote a peaceful political transition and share their concerns about the aggressive actions of the Houthis,” stating on March 27 that the United States backed the GCC because “they are responding to a request from President [Abed Rabbo Mansour] Hadi, who is the legitimate president of Yemen.” (Presumably, the Obama administration would not support an intervention in Egypt to restore its democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.)
And then the White House weighed in, with deputy press secretary Eric Schultz first framing the purpose of the campaign as being “to defend Saudi Arabia’s border” and prevent the establishment of an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula safe haven. Later, press secretary No. 1, Josh Earnest, shifted the message, claiming that the purpose was “to try to bring all of the sides, who are in pretty stark disagreement in Yemen, around the negotiating table to try to stabilize the situation in that country.” It is unclear who will sit around this table, since there have been no apparent efforts by the GCC, U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Jamal Benomar, or Houthi representatives to commence these negotiations.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, legislators tried to frame the issue as friend versus foe. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) stated that intervention was needed because the Arab countries “can’t allow Iran to take a foothold in Yemen…. We call them Houthis, but this is Iran,” said Burr, oversimplifying the matter. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) emphasized the need to “have the Saudis’ back … because that may give the Saudis some comfort that, even if we do reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be willing to confront Iran as it tries to expand its quite nefarious influence.” Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) claimed the intent was “to protect [Saudi Arabia’s] homeland and to protect their own neighborhood.” Finally, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) endorsed the U.S. assistance on the most general justification of all: The civil war was “threatening the national security interests of our regional partners and the United States.”
At least the Pentagon wasn’t trying to make things up. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command, was frank when asked what the purpose of the campaign was, stating, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Despite the astonishing acknowledgment that he did not know why the intervention was occurring and was only given a few hours’ advance notice, Austin declared himself “very encouraged that we have seen what we’ve seen here.”
What is notable is that Saudi Arabia has made little mention of protecting its borders, with its ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, stating that the purpose of the intervention was “to protect the people of Yemen from a radical organization that has allied with Iran and Hezbollah that has virtually taken over the country. It’s to defend the legitimate government of Yemen. And it’s to open up the way for political talks, so that Yemen can complete its transition period and move towards a better place.” Jubeir also declared of this proxy war: “I wouldn’t call it a proxy war because we are doing this to protect Yemen.”
So let’s recap, shall we? The United States is providing operational support to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen to: 1) defend the borders of and prove its commitment to Saudi Arabia; 2) deny al Qaeda a safe haven; 3) protect Yemeni civilians; 4) make GCC members comfortable with a negotiated settlement to Iran’s nuclear program; 5) halt the expansion of Iranian influence generally; 6) protect the interests of nearby countries; and 7) foster a peaceful political transition of the Yemeni government back to power.
All of this despite the fact that the U.S. military commander for the region is unaware of the “specific goals and objectives” of those countries bombing Yemen. This is preposterous.
Remarkably, the administration still defends Obama’s claim that the “strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen.” [Italics added — and needed.] The White House spokesperson said this statement holds because “Yemen is not a nation-building strategy; it’s a counterterrorism strategy,” while the State Department added, “It’s a success and it has been a success for many years because of our efforts to push back and counter [al Qaeda] in Yemen.” Beyond these two on-the-record mouthpieces, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone within the U.S. government who would agree off the record. Those drones that once took out terrorists now feed full-motion video to Saudi targeteers. And that front-line partner in the fight against al Qaeda, President Hadi, is in exile in Riyadh. That sure doesn’t look like a strategy successfully pursued.
To see Yemen exclusively through the lens of U.S. counterterrorism goals, and thus deem it a foreign-policy “success,” is not only insensitive to the chaos Yemenis are experiencing, it is incredibly shortsighted — if not downright disingenuous.
It is entirely implausible that the seven-course buffet of justifications and objectives will be achieved in Yemen. Oh, and there’s one more falsehood that we’re being fed: This will all be over soon. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke pronounced on Friday: “We don’t want this to be an open-ended military campaign.” Of course, nobody wants that, though the leaders of the bombing campaign have pledged it will not end until the Houthis simply surrender and disarm. No doubt, much of the military and civilian infrastructure being destroyed will have to be rebuilt — in effect, nation-building again.
As Fred Iklé wrote in his 1971 classic Every War Must End, “[I]t is the outcome of the war, not the outcome of the campaigns within it, that determines how well their plans serve the nation’s interests.” The manner and speed with which the Obama administration decided to wholly back one side in Yemen’s latest proxy civil war — with no clear outcome — should be alarming. Unfortunately, this has become standard operating procedure for how the United States keeps going to war.