The sole reason for U.S. disengagement in Yemen has been the incidence of “accidental” Saudi airstrikes with large civilian casualties. Saudi explanations did not convince U.S. strike planners. So, rather than behave like the Russians, who, some think, acted on Assad requests with too little concern for collateral casualties, or simply didn’t care, the U.S. withdrew strike planning staff in August 2016.
U.S. foreign policy is about to get a heavy dose of realpolitik. But even so, the decision to use force depends not simply on moral standard, but how force will serve the national interest. It is not in the interests of the realpolitik practitioner to attempt force in non-permissive theaters.
While Iraq is, by geography, ideal for frustrating Iranian westward expansion, it is now just a barely permissive environment. In Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?, I wrote,
This is the advanced age and delicate health of Iraq’s senior cleric, Ali al-Sistani. Compared to Iran’s ample religious establishment, Iraq’s is relatively spare. Sistani is relatively progressive, what we would want an ayatollah to be if we had to have one. That Iraq has any independent religious establishment at all is due to his seniority. Sistani has been protective of Iraq as an independent political entity, a concern not shared by the infiltrative power brokers of Qom.
When Sistani passes, Iraq will be a completely non-permissive environment for U.S. action against Iran. Yemen does not have quite the same geographic blocking potential. But it offers proactive proxies, eager to conduct a proxy war with the mutual interest of the U.S.
But Aladdin’s fable has both the lamp and the ring. The lamp, stolen, falls into the hands of an evil sorcerer, who now controls the more powerful genie. The evil of the story is represented in the dire straits of Yemen, a nation running out of water, mired in poverty, drug addiction, and war. The Gulf States showed no interest in the uplift of Yemen before the revolt of the Houthis. With cheap oil, they will continue with the tradition of the cheap fix.
As is frequently the case, realpolitik contains a moral dilemma. Some practitioners find solace in a greater good. Sometimes there is none. These are the sides of the coin:
- Iran’s government is inimical to western values. It may have the ambitions of a larger caliphate, anchored in the theological certainty that to us is a kind of poison. Since the Iranian Revolution, Iran’s theological government has engaged in episodic versions of the French Terror. We have no assurance they will not reprise.
- Iran’s government has an organizing principle that may hold the only chance to bring Yemen back from Malthusian catastrophe. Western culture is too distant. With the exception of Egypt, Sunni culture is itself is too challenged from within.
Recent experience, and reevaluation of U.S. foreign policy since World War II suggests that proactive policy, which in this case means full-on support of proxies in Yemen, would not achieve a result considered “good” by advocates. One line of reasoning holds hope by a thin thread. Hold the fort in Yemen until Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform drive takes hold.
Then Yemen can be the region’s Mexico, a source of cheap labor.