Yemen: The Graveyard of the Obama Doctrine

By 23 September، 2016July 24th, 2019No Comments

This past Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered his final speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Though he tried to sound optimistic, he couldn’t help but strike a rueful tone. Gone was the global media darling who electrified world leaders in 2009—that Obama was “determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad.” The graying, deliberate Obama of 2016 could offer only limited aspirations of a “course correction” in world politics, while pondering why cycles of conflict and suffering persisted. Though the president advocated for the “hard work of diplomacy” in places like Syria, he also elaborated on one of his recent, common refrains, cautioning that in the Middle East “no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long.” Across the region, “we have to insist that all parties recognize a common humanity and that nations end proxy wars that fuel disorder,” Obama said.

day later, the U.S. Senate held a rare debate on the sale of arms destined for another war in the Middle East. The deal, for $1.15 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, including over 150 Abrams tanks, is a drop in a bucket: more than $100 billion in arms sales to the kingdom have already been approved by the Obama administration. But a year and a half into the kingdom’s relentless war in Yemen, opponents of the new sale see it as an outright affirmation of Washington’s involvement in a deadly, strategically incoherent war that the White House has kept largely quiet about. What’s more, it is at odds with Obama’s apparent distaste for regional proxy wars.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has targeted Yemen’s Shia Houthi militias and their allies, loyalists of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who two years ago seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa by force. Several months later, they drove the Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. When Saudi King Salman announced the intervention in Yemen—an intervention the kingdom has painted as a proxy war with Iran, its regional foe—the White House immediately authorized a support package that included intelligence-sharing and logistical support for military operations. That package has seen the United States deliver more than 40 million pounds of fuel to Saudi jets over the past 18 months, according to U.S. Central Command. The Saudis would be crippled without direct U.S. military assistance, particularly aerial refueling, which continues unabated.

Supporters of the new arms package portrayed it as necessary support after the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran. To them, Yemen is a proxy war, and the United States must side with the Gulf—never mind the absence of direct evidence of wide-scale Iranian meddling in the Houthi rebellion. “Blocking this sale of tanks will be interpreted by our Gulf partners, not just Saudi Arabia, as another sign that the United States of America is abandoning our commitment in the region and is an unreliable security partner,” Arizona Senator John McCain said, depicting the very dynamic Obama appeared to warn against the day before. “That’s what this vote is all about.”
Those opposing the deal, including Republicans like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Democrats like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, urged their colleagues to reconsider the costs of enmeshing the United States in another war. “Let’s ask ourselves whether we are comfortable with the United States getting slowly, predictably, and all too quietly dragged into yet another war in the Middle East,” Murphy said from the floor. Ultimately, the Senate voted to table the resolution opposing the deal. But 27 senators voted against the motion to table—coming out against the arms deal in a considerable, if symbolic, rebuke to the Saudis, the Obama administration, and their largely Republican backers.Earlier this year, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published “The Obama Doctrine,” in which the president described a Middle East populated by unreliable “free-rider” allies constantly drawing the United States into their petty rivalries, fueled by avarice, tribalism, and sectarianism. Key among those free riders were the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, Goldberg wrote. The Saudis, along with the Iranians, Obama said, “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” Yet despite the Obama White House’s misgivings about Saudi Arabia, it backed its campaign in Yemen, enabling perhaps the chief free-rider’s war.At times, the Obama administration’s support for the Saudis has thrown diplomatic efforts to end the war into confusion. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Jeddah to meet with officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, and the United Nations. Some Yemenis were cautiously optimistic that Kerry—who says the war in Yemen does not have a military solution—would use his leverage with Riyadh to push for an easing of airstrikes. Instead, he left them with a vague “roadmap” for peace that offered the Houthis certain concessions, angering some in Riyadh, but did little to pressure the Saudis to implement the plan. Within 24 hours, the Saudi-led coalition had intensified its aerial campaign, while its allies on the ground launched a renewed offensive on the Houthi-controlled northwest of the country. The Houthis responded by escalating their own attacks over the border into the kingdom.

President Obama with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (Gary Cameron / Reuters)

Farea al-Muslimi, a Beirut-based Yemeni political analyst and cofounder of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said underwhelming diplomatic efforts by the United States like this have left Yemenis feeling like a beleaguered afterthought. “It is quite disappointing, especially because Yemen is easily solved compared to Syria,” where a political revolution morphed disastrously into sectarian cleansing, he said. Yemen’s war, by contrast, is still largely a matter of local rivalries. “But there is simply no interest or concern” from the United States, al-Muslimi said.


This article was published on the Atlantic