A Yemen-based US foreign policy and return to international moral leadership

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The State of Liberty is visible on the horizon as the American Flag flies.

The 2020 Democratic field is abuzz with good ideas, mostly to meet domestic challenges on climate change, national health insurance and narrowing the widening gap between rich and poor. On foreign policy, most seem to agree that American moral leadership has been lacking and, as the passage of SJr7 indicated, a bipartisan majority stands behind invoking the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to check President Donald Trump’s ability to slide the nation into war without consultation with and approval from Congress. A coherent global vision of foreign policy with an accompanying strategy — something that the Trump administration lacks — is yet to be presented by anyone currently running for the highest office of the land.

Yemen could be the basis of a new U.S. foreign policy: How you take the lead in ending a disastrous war in Yemen while recalibrating relations with Saudi Arabia, pushing the reset button on Iran policy to put it back on a constructive path, all while not neglecting the persistent national security need to counter terrorist threats currently posed by al-Qa’eda and ISIS. A strategy that meets these goals would set the standard for balancing a value-based foreign policy with national security.

{mosads}If the Yemen war is still raging in 2020 (and current indications are not encouraging that it won’t be), a new administration must commit to ending it post-haste. The first step would begin with a White House declaration that this is the top priority for U.S. foreign policy. A special envoy with a team of experts from the various foreign policy and security agencies must then implement this priority. This team would be empowered to deal with the national, regional and international aspects of the Yemen conflict, since the problem has long ceased to be a mere internal struggle for power. This team should not supplant, but rather complement, what the UN envoy is doing.

The current envoy, Martin Griffiths, is tirelessly working on the separation of forces around the various fronts where they have been locked in battle, starting rightly with the city port of Hodeida where humanitarian aid has been blocked from reaching those most in need around the country.

The big-picture decisions that could lead to stopping the war must be made elsewhere, however — in the regional and international capitals most involved in fueling the war.

On the government of Yemen side, Saudi Arabia funds and controls the official Yemeni armed forces (at least the faction that remains loyal to president Hadi), plus the forces mobilized by al-Islah party (which include Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood). Add to that side, sundry mercenary forces imported from other countries, Sudan for example. The UAE in turn funds and controls mostly southern Yemeni forces such as the Southern Transitional Council, the Security Belt (al-Hizam) and the Elite (Nukhba) forces — again, along with sundry mercenary forces, mostly hired via contracts with international companies that perform such “security” services, when the price is right.

As complex as the above military scene is, and taking into account that it is neither homogeneous nor harmonious, the keys are still largely with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A combination of cajoling and cutting off of funds by the Arab coalition should succeed in getting the guns on their side of the war to fall silent, at least as an initial step. The U.S. for its part must use the same tactics with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, partly convincing them that the U.S. has their back in terms of stopping any direct attacks on them and partly by withholding the logistical and other critical support that have hitherto allowed the coalition to fight on with impunity.

{mossecondads}On the Houthi/Ansar Allah side, the fighting force is far less complicated and mostly highly responsive to orders from their leaders — in this case, totally Yemeni. The relevant regional powers for the Houthis are Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah — influential certainly, but not supplying troops nor holding the purse strings or controlling the tap on armaments. Herein lies the opportunity with Iran, where a diplomatic approach could convince them to lean on the Houthis to accept a reasonable plan for peace. True, it is Hezbollah that supplies the technical expertise and strategic advice most influential with the Houthis, but this is done in total agreement and coordination with Iran. An agreeable leadership in Tehran would go a long way in pushing things in the right direction. This would not be done in a vacuum, but rather within the context of a broader easing of tensions on a host of regional issues. Again, American diplomacy to ease the cold war between Tehran and Riyadh, along with a return to the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) would be an excellent jumping off point for reaching a peace deal in Yemen.

Russia might also be brought in, albeit very carefully and tangentially given the still unfolding drama of Russian intervention in American elections. Russia has minimal ties in Yemen, but could use its contacts with some southern Yemeni leaders to help prevent their desire for secession from derailing over all peace in Yemen.  Acquiring at least a benign attitude from Moscow would minimize the possibility of their using their seat on the UNSC to shove sticks into the spokes of the wheel of peace.

On the counterterrorism front, the use of drones and air strikes — often necessitated by over reliance on technology and the lack of direct access to where the terror plots are being woven — has taken too many innocent lives over the years and has been ineffective in eradicating the problem. A reliance on local tribal forces via an agreement with tribal leaders — one of the late Yemeni president’s more successful tactics — is the best way to achieve quiet on that front. Former president Saleh cajoled, bribed and otherwise reached understandings with Yemen’s tribes to keep foreign fighters and extremists out of their areas. A local approach is best, especially when greased with humanitarian assistance and development funds. Winning hearts and minds with tangible benefits on the ground cannot be underestimated as a long-term tool to combat extremism.

Finally, the core of a durable peace in Yemen gets back to the issue of settling the domestic struggle for power that ensued upon the removal of the Saleh regime following the uprising of 2011. A power sharing agreement with a fair distribution of wealth among the regions of Yemen has always been the logical way out — such a formal agreement between the main factions was never fully agreed to despite the two years of a national dialogue sponsored by the first UN envoy, Jamal Benomar. An aborted, yet much needed, political transition started in 2011. It must be revived once the guns fall silent and Yemen’s talented youth, currently dispersed all over the world, must be brought in to put their expertise and their hopes for a better future for their country to good use.

If a future administration in the U.S. can make all that happen, with aggressive diplomacy and well-targeted use of its resources, it will have truly merited a return to international moral leadership.

Nabeel A. Khoury is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. He retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister Counselor, after 25 years in the Foreign Service. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Follow him on Twitter @khoury_nabeel.

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates Donald Trump Foreign policy Houthi movement Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict Yemen Yemeni Crisis

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