March 19, 2019

Senate Gets It Wrong on Yemen

Withdrawing support for Saudi actions against Houthi rebels would be a big mistake.

The recent vote in the Senate to end American support for Saudi military actions against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is a huge mistake. It’s such a mistake that President Donald Trump should make this the subject of another veto threat.

First of all, as we have mentioned before, there aren’t very good options in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has been very oppressive when it comes to women’s rights, and the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi shows the House of Saud has little regard for freedom of the press. But the alternatives are the mullahs of Iran (who openly have vowed to wipe Israel off the map) and Turkey (run by Recip Tayyip Erdogan, a friend of Hamas and no champion of democracy, either, regressing toward an authoritarian Islamist regime). So, the Saudis, who are making some steps forward, seem to be the best option.

Second, if this resolution goes through, it would be yet another time America abandoned allies. The Hmong and Montagnards in southeast Asia (Vietnam War), Carlos Castano and Los Pepes in Colombia (the hunt for Pablo Escobar), and the Kurds (War on Terror) have all felt the sting of America turning its back on them. In addition, turning our backs on Hosni Mubarak or the Shah of Iran did not improve things for America. We shouldn’t add Saudi Arabia to the list of these mistakes.

Next, Yemen does occupy some key strategic real estate. It sits on the Bab el Mandab, a maritime chokepoint that controls access to the Red Sea. This means it can cut off a maritime lifeline for Israel. Now, given that the Houthis are backed by Iran, and Iran has vowed to wipe Israel from the map … well, it seems obvious that ending support for the Saudis would only make it easier for Iran to achieve the objective that the mullahs have repeatedly voiced.

Then, there is also a bit of a more “personal” factor: The Houthis fired missiles at a U.S. Navy ship. On multiple occasions in October 2016, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) dodged Iranian-built copies of the C-802 anti-ship missile. The skill of that ship’s crew in using the onboard defense systems (missiles and jammers) and luck kept the ship from being hit. Barack Obama’s response? Three Tomahawks fired days later. It was typical of his fouled-up foreign policy. Three Tomahawks would have been nice right after the first salvo of missiles, but the repeated ones warranted something far stronger.

Don’t get us wrong — we’re all for peace, but there needs to be some serious disincentives to take potshots at our troops, planes, and ships. The fact is, with the departure of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, we lost one of our primary behavioral motivators. With Mattis in office, no other national leader in his right mind would think of taking potshots at us. Without Mattis, the behavioral motivation will have to be more direct and involve making examples of those who do take potshots at our ships and troops. We think even Tulsi Gabbard would be willing to shoot back in such cases.

In any case, the fact is that we often do not get to choose between good, great, and so-so outcomes in the world. Often, the choices are between slightly bad, bad, really bad, and horrendous. Trying to pick the least bad option means we have to accept some things that are pretty ugly. But we should remember that many of the other outcomes are far worse than what we’re dealing with from friends.


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