Yemen and the American Impulse to Take Sides

by Paul R. Pillar

A strong Manichean streak runs through American perceptions of the outside world.  That streak involves a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms, a presumption that one of the perceived two sides is good and the other bad, and an urge to weigh in on the presumptively good side. The influence that these tendencies have had on U.S. policy has varied over time. The influence was readily apparent, for example, during the George W. Bush administration’s days of “you’re either with us or with the terrorists.” The Obama administration has tried to move in a less Manichean and more realist direction, especially in conducting diplomacy with Iran and in so doing opening a door to a more fruitful all-azimuths diplomacy in the Middle East generally. But the current administration still operates in a political environment in which the old perceptual habits set limits on what the administration can do, or perhaps push it into doing things it might not otherwise have done.

There have been ample demonstrations throughout the Middle East of how inaccurate and inapplicable the Manichean perspective is. There is Iraq, where the United States and the Iranian bête noire are on the same side in countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. There is the even more complicated deadly brawl in Syria, where the people who from the viewpoint of the West are the closest thing to good guys are opposing the same regime that also is opposed by ISIS and the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

At least as clear a lesson both in the fallacies of the Manichean perspective and the mistake of the United States taking sides in such conflicts is found in the current strife in Yemen. But the lesson does not seem to have been learned, as reflected in U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Three major features of the conflict in Yemen are pertinent to that lesson.

One is that the conflict is at least as complicated and multidimensional as any others in the Middle East. It is impossible to draw a line that would put everyone worth supporting on one side and everyone worth opposing on the other, or even to come close to doing that. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—often considered the most capable Al-Qaeda affiliate today—is completely at odds with, and a confirmed enemy of, the Houthi forces who are the principal target of the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention. One of the most significant allies of the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for three decades was America’s guy as ruler of Yemen.

Second, this war is, as Adam Baron has put it, “by and large, an internal Yemeni political conflict” that “remains deeply rooted in local Yemeni issues.” This fact has been obscured by those who, intent on depicting Iran as a dangerous wide-ranging regional renegade, portray the Houthi rebellion as part of some Iranian expansionist plan. It is nothing of the sort. The Houthis have been driven for years by grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen, and their more recent gains have mostly reflected the sympathy for those grievances among other Yemeni elements who have been similarly displeased and disadvantaged by the most recent Yemeni regimes.

Third, the motivations of outside actors intervening in this conflict are not ones that the United States ought to associate itself with. One set of motivations is sectarian. There is no advantage at all, and lots of disadvantage, for the United States to be seen identifying with one side or another in sectarian disputes within the Muslim world. Another set of motivations, rooted in decades of Saudi-Yemeni strife dating back to when the expansion of the Saudi kingdom first led to seizure of traditionally Yemeni provinces and to lingering border disputes, involves a Saudi desire to exercise dominance over the Arabian Peninsula and in particular this part of it. Graham Fuller observes, “Riyadh has always loathed Yemeni feistiness, independence, its revolutionary politics, and even its experiments with democracy.” The Saudis publicly play up the Iranian angle, but what they really don’t like about the Houthis is that they haven’t been able to buy off the Houthis as effectively as they have many other Yemeni elements. The Saudi objective of maintaining this kind of overlordship over its neighbors is also not an interest that the United States shares.

And yet the urge to take sides and intervene persists, as reflected in recent remarks about the Yemeni case by John McCain. The urge pays insufficient heed either to what is in U.S. interests or to what is effective. McCain asserted that the Saudis did not seek advance coordination with the United States concerning their intervention “because they believe we are siding with Iran.” Actually, according to a senior officer at U.S. Central Command, “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea.”

We know that the Obama administration is feeling the need these days to appear supportive of the Gulf Arabs because of angst related to the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. And if catering to that angst is one of the prices that has to be paid to get the agreement and, through it, to get closer to liberating U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East from rigid side-taking in the future, then this policy may turn out to be on balance worthwhile. But the Yemeni conflict itself still ought to serve as a lesson in the multiple reasons the United States would be better off to resist its side-taking urge.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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  1. 1. The US sees itself as the dominate world power and therefore must be involved in everything everywhere. Total world dominance requires total world participation.

    2.There is no Manichean consideration of good and evil in this, only what course of action benefits US world power. It comes with the assumed title. The world’s business is America’s business. To do nothing about something somewhere would be considered a sign of weakness, like “leading from behind.” Can’t have that. And the best course of action is the one most favoring America. Anything less is silly.

    3. Yemen is an example. The Saudi despots are best allies so help them bomb Yemen back to the stone age and starve the people (food line are being bombed). Not a problem.

    4. Obama moved on Iran not because he suddenly cares about Iran, he doesn’t. He hates Iran. (Or he’s been ordered to hate Iran.) But he badly needs something as a legacy. I/P didn’t work, but an Iran nuclear deal might. There are still Iran’s other “bad features” to frighten people — the scary mullahs, ballistic missiles, terrorism, etc.

    4. Without something positive, the coming Obama Library would feature nothing but negatives, considering all the wars he’s started and promoted. An opening to Iran, albeit belated, would be a feature.

  2. Could there be such a thing as a non-Manichean revolution? Could the cold war, or any war for that matter, be possible without that deep-rooted drive to think in Manichean terms. How else could we obliterate each other without the comforting Manichean distinction between the good guys and bad guys?

    Perhaps thinking like a Manichean is an intellectually flawed way to see the world, but perhaps it’s the only way to see the world in which it makes moral sense.

  3. Saudi Arabia, feeling powerless in the face of every single strategic defeat it has suffered for as long as we can remember, including the impending “nuclear deal” (remains to be seen), stumbled through a change in command. With the new king in charge, he was presented with a proposal. His young son the minister presented him with a plan that would 1- force America to choose sides, 2- force a potential conflict with Iran and kill the nuke deal, 3- show the rest of the Arabs he’s the man and the leader of the Arab world, 4- teach Iran a lesson. According to this plan a show of force via some limited bombardment and the absolute support of the sympathetic Arab states and the U.S. would be enough to scare the Houthis into submission. The plan failed. The bombings had the opposite effect. The air war did not work. Saudi Arabia panicked and ordered their client state, Pakistan, to commit to sending troops upon command. Because, you didn’t expect us to actually do the fighting on the ground ourselves, did you? That’s why we hired the Pakistanis!. All of Saudi Arabia’s bluster didn’t mean they were going to commit their own troops who might get their shiny new clothes dirty. Laughably, SA’s “coalition of the willing” which should include hundreds of millions of Arabs, including the most populous (Egypt) apparently didn’t want to commit troops either. But Pakistan, who has taken SA’s billions all these years, disobeyed and foiled the young minister’s plans. They declare they would only commit troops in the defense of Saudi Arabia. In essence they considered the Yemen war actually a war of aggression and one of choice. They rejected participating in SA’s aggression. So, now Saudi Arabia has painted into a corner. It must either send in the troops or admit defeat. It has no confidence it can win a ground war with its own troops and all the hundreds of billions of sophisticated weapons they have purchased from the U.S. is not going to change that. Yemen is not Bahrain. In fact, the second Saudi Arabia sets foot in Yemen it could potentially spell its own end as the disgusting nature of the sectarianism that they have fueled all these years could cause severe blowback and end up pitting its own Sunnis and Shiites. Furthermore, sitting back means Saudi Arabia has effectively accepted a divided Yemen: The Shiite-dominated half and the Sunni half dominated by the rising Al-Qaeda. That means Saudi Arabia is now faced with the nightmare scenario of having two potent enemies on its southern border. Ironically, if that happens it would be largely due to Saudi Arabia’s own doing. So, Saudi Arabia has started a war that it can’t finish, and it must pay the price of that.

    Clearly, it is absolute foolishness for the U.S. to intervene in order to clean up the quagmire that Saudi Arabia has created for itself. Heck, we can’t even clean up our own mess in Iraq, Afghanistan (and to a lesser degree Syria and Libya). It will be another war with no possibility of victory. All the belligerent neocons and their talk of “leading from behind” need to go back to school of foreign policy and learn how their idea of their world empire simply does not work and it’s time for a profound re-examination of our role and place in the world.

  4. If the reports are correct, Saudi Arabia has admitted defeat as they just announced the ending of their bombing campaign. In their statement they claim they have met all their objectives! Really??? Last time I looked, the Houthis are still there and in charge of a large portion of Yemen. So, the Saudis have just redefined their “objectives”, because their initial objective was the total defeat of Houthis and reinstatement of Hadi, and neither one has happened. They must have read my earlier post! I didn’t know I had that kind of persuasive powers. If true, how long before the young minister is kicked to the dumpster for this great victory?

    Of course, there is another report that conflicts with my conclusion, and that report states that SA has called up its national guard to join the operations, without being specific about what operation. Is it just disinformation to confuse everyone or have they all of a sudden developed guts and decided to mount a ground invasion, in which case, the suspension of the air campaign would be one of the most unconventional steps before ground operations.

  5. I believe that the USA has thrown the Saudis in a trap. Under the pretext of showing they are on their side, they have encouraged them into doomed attacks. The USA knew very well that the Saudis will fail.
    The reason is simple. The USA wants the Saudis to accept that Iran is a major Moslem power in the region with a huge potential and that they must accept not only to recognize it as such but to enter into a negotiation to agree on the zones of influences allocated to each one.
    According to the USA, Saudi Arabia and the GCC will have Egypt and Libya under their exclusive influence while they will have get their hands off Syria and Iraq . They may keep a shared interest in Yemen and Lebanon.
    The Saudi failure is a turning point in the regional reshuffling of influences.

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