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April 18, 2019

Trump Veto — The Best Choice for America and Yemen

Foreign policy rarely consists of easy choices, and aiding Saudi Arabia is complicated.

President Donald Trump’s veto of a congressional resolution that would have halted American support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen has drawn complaints from two sides. The first is the usual suspects on the Left. The second, though, comes from some who supported President Trump. But this veto was the right call, despite the flak.

As we have discussed earlier, the situation in Yemen is one that has few good options. Don’t get us wrong — the Saudis are no angels (the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi being but one relatively minor example). That being said, they are making progress in the right direction, including Mohammed bin Salman’s statement effectively recognizing Israel’s right to exist. In addition, the alternative is to let Iran take Yemen.

That would be a bad idea on geopolitics alone. Yemen sits astride the Bab el Mandab, a maritime chokepoint that controls access to the Red Sea. This makes it a potential lifeline to Israel, given the dearth of naval powers. It would not be hard to get convoys of aid to Israeli ports via the Red Sea if things came to that. But if Iran takes Yemen, America’s presence in the region will have to increase to deal with the threat.

But since critics of the veto are talking about human rights and other moral issues, let’s examine how Iran scores on that matter. Iranian leaders regularly proclaim a desire to wipe Israel off the map (in essence, a 2019 remake of the Holocaust) — in a country where Holocaust denial is routine. That is reason enough to keep backing the Saudis, even if it means turning a blind eye to other stuff. That doesn’t also include the fact that Iran helped insurgents kill a few hundred American troops in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. That is a debt America needs to collect on.

Not many things in foreign policy or national security provide American presidents an easy choice, but the situation in Yemen is one that is relatively easy, even with the nasty stains on Saudi Arabia’s record. This is doubly true since we’ve not maintained a sufficient force structure to handle this ourselves. All of our services — the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Coast Guard — have been shorted since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This has forced hard choices, like the one made regarding Syria that resulted in the departure of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

If George W. Bush had been willing to build up the military after 9/11, we might not be in this mess, but he didn’t and we are paying now for that mistake. In essence, the Saudis are fighting a fight we should have a larger role in fighting if we didn’t lack the force structure. Why should America have a larger role? Well, for one thing, there’s the awkward matter of the potshots the Iranian-backed Houthis took at the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87).

Yes, President Trump campaigned on reducing America’s global footprint. Given the lesson learned from Barack Obama’s reckless timetable-based withdrawal from Iraq, however, the way to reduce that footprint isn’t a reckless pullout on a politically based timetable. The way you reduce the footprint responsibly is to ensure that the threats that warrant American military presence in the first place are gone. Ideally, you can try to negotiate them away. Other times, you can strengthen allies to handle it on their own. But sometimes, the best way to reduce America’s footprint over the long term is to escalate a response in the short term.

This might sound contradictory and appear that Trump is breaking promises. But think about it this way: If we could eliminate ISIS, and get a non-genocidal regime in Iran, much of the need for our military presence in the Middle East goes away. Similarly, if NATO allies like Germany and Canada pull their weight, maybe America would not need so many troops in Europe.

It’s not always easy to get to a reduced footprint from our current situation, and sometimes doing it will seem counterintuitive, but right now, reality dictates that bringing the troops home may require deploying more forces in the short term.

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