Foreign Policy

What Should America Do in Yemen?

The U.S. has strategic interests in the conflict, namely blocking Iran's attempt at hegemony.

Harold Hutchison · Sep. 27, 2018

The Yemeni civil war is a humanitarian disaster — one that is completely man-made. Let’s stipulate that fact up front. It’s really a proxy war, with one side consisting of Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backing the Yemeni government, and the other being Iran, which backs Houthi rebels.

America is also involved in this conflict. We’re supporting the Saudis with aerial refueling, and we’re also selling them precision-guided weapons. That’s because Yemen is on one side of the Bab el Mandab, a relatively narrow strait that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. This is what is known as a chokepoint. Ships have to pass through to get to that destination — or accept a longer journey around Africa. We all know that time is money.

In essence, that location is a perfect place to set up an ambush, either with planes, missile-equipped ships, or shore-based missiles. Having this in the hands of Iranian stooges is bad news. Especially when those stooges took shots at the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) in October 2016. Well, back then, the U.S. responded very ineffectively. A few Tomahawks fired immediately is understandable. But to wait days to send less than half a dozen Tomahawks looked pretty weak.

Well, the Saudi-led coalition (with American support) has been making progress against the Iranian stooges. As in all wars, there are civilian casualties. Recently, there was an effort by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) to cut off the provision of weapons. The amendment was blocked, but disturbingly for those who seek to keep Iran from gaining new bases from which to support terrorism, Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana have supported this effort.

Nobody wants civilian casualties. But at the same time, giving Iran any sort of foothold in Yemen — or anywhere else — is not a good idea. Just look at Lebanon and Syria to see what happens when Iran does get that foothold. But there’s also a bit of reason to work hard against the Houthis as well. Remember, they took multiple shots at an American ship. Furthermore, the Bab el Mandab is crucial — it offers a back door maritime route to Israel that bypasses the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal.

The entire American involvement in Yemen is somewhat dubious legally. Yes, al-Qaida has an affiliate called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that operates out of Yemen. That group, incidentally, was behind the Fort Hood and underwear-bomb terrorist attacks of 2009. This means the 2001 authorization for the use of military force applies — but it is a very huge reach to apply operations against the Houthi.

But the United States is not in active combat — the involvement is literally refueling Saudi planes. There was a similar support operation for the French in Mali earlier this decade, also against an al-Qaida affiliate. American forces aren’t fighting, but they are enabling action against bad guys.

Exactly what Congress should do in these situations is something worth figuring out. Perhaps it is too easy to get involved in conflicts in this manner, but it’s also worth noting that congressional micromanagement doesn’t make things better.

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